Twenty-five years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton presided over a famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House as they signed the Oslo Accords. Those accords, initiated at secret Norwegian-hosted talks between Israeli academics and PLO officials, set an agenda and a five-year timetable for a full peace deal that would initially allow limited Palestinian self-governance in parts of the occupied territories and entailed mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.
These days, that historic moment is mostly forgotten as Israelis and Palestinians hurl familiar accusations at the other side in order to vindicate their current positions. In some quarters, there is an occasional whiff of nostalgia for an opportunity missed. But finger-pointing or rose-tinted memories of that September day miss the significance of the occasion. In today’s grim reality, what matters most is understanding how the Oslo breakthrough became possible in the first place.In today’s grim reality, what matters most is understanding how the Oslo breakthrough became possible in the first place.
The signing of the Oslo Accords took place in a very specific local and global political context. It was the end of the Cold War; a U.S.-led coalition had triumphed in the first Gulf War; Arafat’s PLO was in crisis; and there was a political shift in Israel when Rabin came to power in 1992. But the prime driver of change was the fact that the status quo had ceased to be cost-free for the more powerful party—Israel. The Israeli government was therefore ready to seriously contemplate compromise. And the key factor behind that change was the first Palestinian intifada. [Continue reading…]