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Q&A: the Oslo process

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What was the Oslo agreement? How was it supposed to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And twenty years later, why has the peace process failed to move forward?

What was the Oslo agreement?

The Oslo agreement was the result of the first ever direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, after 40 years during which the two parties had refused to recognise each other as legitimate political entities. It established the ‘two-state solution’ – an Israeli state and a Palestinian state existing side by side in peace – as the mutually agreed and internationally recognised formula to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Following months of secret talks conducted in Norway by politicians, academics and conflict resolution practitioners, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the agreement – known as ‘Oslo I’ – on 13 September 1993. The agreement was designed as a set of interim measures that would lead to final status negotiations after a period of five years.

What were the terms of the initial agreement?

The initial Declaration of Principles set out a five-year transitional period in which:

  • Israel would withdraw from Gaza, the Jericho region, and eventually the entire West Bank;
  • A Palestinian Authority (PA) would be established, which would govern the occupied Palestinian territory during the transitional period. The first free and fair Palestinian elections would be held within nine months.

This interim period would lead to a permanent resolution based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. (See right-hand text box below for more information.)

UN Security Council resolutions

Resolution 242 (22 November 1967) followed the 1967 conflict between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

It emphasises that it is inadmissible to acquire territory through war. As a result, in order for there to be a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, Israel must withdraw from territories occupied in 1967. It calls for all states involved to end hostility and live peacefully within recognised boundaries, highlighting the necessity of guaranteeing free movement through international waters in the area, and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

Resolution 338 was passed during the 1973 War (often known as the Yom Kippur War).

It calls for an immediate ceasefire, which would be followed by all parties implementing Resolution 242 and beginning negotiations aimed at a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

Israel later added the further condition that Israeli withdrawal and transfer of authority would only move forward if the Palestinians met certain security and public order goals.

What was not included in the agreement?

Oslo I was designed to be an interim agreement, so it did not address the major ‘final status’ issues: the status of Jerusalem, refugees’ right of return, Israeli settlements and border issues.

What was Oslo II?

Israel and the Palestinians signed another interim agreement in 1995 which was more far-reaching than Oslo I.

Oslo II, or the ‘Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip’, defined further interim arrangements. It divided the West Bank into three temporary administrative areas. Area A came under the full civil and military control of the PA (17 per cent of the West Bank); Area B was under Palestinian civil control but Israel maintained security control (24 per cent); and Area C was under full Israeli civil and security control (59 per cent).

What went wrong?

Twenty years on, the Oslo process has not led to a final resolution of the conflict.

Several negative developments, including the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the outbreaks of violence that became known as the Second Intifada, severely undermined trust between the two parties and among the Israeli and Palestinian public. The stipulation that the Palestinians had to meet certain security criteria before Israel moved forward on its commitments led to stalemate, and the intermittent negotiations that have taken place since 1996 have been largely unsuccessful.

The process of establishing Palestinian autonomy also failed to progress as planned. While there was a rapid Israeli withdrawal from some Palestinian towns following Oslo II, Israel simultaneously increased settlement- and infrastructure-building in other areas. In 2000 the outbreak of the Second Intifada prompted Israel to temporarily reoccupy all the major cities in the West Bank.

Rather than move the peace process forward, Oslo II in fact became a huge impediment by turning what were intended to be temporary provisions – such as the Palestinian Authority and the division of Palestinian territory – into permanent structures. What were designed as interim agreements to last for a period of five years continue to serve as the basic architecture of Israeli and Palestinian administration in the West Bank.

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