International, regional and domestic factors in the late 1980s and early 1990s facilitated progress in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. The demise of the Soviet Union, dwindling Arab financial support for the PLO in the wake of its embrace of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, deteriorating economic conditions in the territories, the strengthening of Islamic extremism and the election victory of the Labor party in Israel's June 1992 elections, all paved the way for a more pragmatic approach on the part of all parties to the conflict.
The historic Arab-Israeli peace conference held in Madrid in October-November 1991 marked the first time that Arabs and Israelis sat down together to negotiate directly a future of peaceful coexistence. The conference paved the way for bilateral negotiations between Israel, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians.
Along with the bilateral negotiating track launched at the October 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, multilateral working groups (water, environment, refugees, arms control, economic development) were established to deal with issues of regional concern. Aided by the participation of friendly nations, these working groups met in capitals all over the world. The groundwork for many cooperative regional projects was laid.
Despite the significance of the 1991 Madrid Conference, bilateral Arab-Israeli negotiations eventually stalled and little progress was achieved. After months of secret negotiations in Norway, Israel and the PLO announced in August 1993 that they had reached an agreement on mutual recognition. The PLO formally recognized Israel's right to exist and live in security and renounced terrorism and all forms of violence.
In another historic breakthrough, on September 13, 1993, the two parties signed the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles (DOP) in Washington, DC, outlining the end of Israeli occupation and an interim arrangement for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In forging ahead, both parties compromised: Israel abandoned its vision of a "Greater Israel" and the PLO abandoned longstanding policies of violence and rejection. For both, the agreement initiated a long and arduous negotiating process aimed at mutually determining the future status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The DOP was followed by several agreements implementing Israeli withdrawal and redeployment from various areas and transferring varying degrees of civil responsibility to the Palestinian Authority. At this writing, seven major West Bank cities and most of Gaza are under Palestinian control. The eighth major city, Hebron, has areas under Palestinian control and areas under Israeli control because of the Jews living in Hebron. In January 1996, Palestinians held elections for the first time and chose representatives to the Palestinian Council, the governing body of the Palestinian Authority.
The breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations led to major advances in Israel's relations with Arab nations and enhanced Israel's diplomatic position in the international community. Most notably, Israel and Jordan concluded a peace treaty in October 1994. Other Arab states initiated varying degrees of political and economic relations. Many UN members initiated or restored diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. After many long years of rejection, the Vatican established relations with Israel in December 1993.
The peace process has had to endure many challenges and obstacles. The Israeli and Palestinian polities are not unanimous in supporting the agreements reached between the two parties. Most Israelis support the Israeli-Palestinian agreements but many are concerned about the viability of the agreements from a security perspective and in light of continued terrorism by Islamic extremist groups opposed to Israel's very existence. Other Israelis are ideologically opposed to the agreements because of the historic and religious significance of "Judea and Samaria" to the Jewish people.
Within the Palestinian community, many Palestinians accept the idea of coexistence and peace with Israel but are concerned that the agreements do not go far enough in advancing Palestinian aspirations. Other Palestinians reject Israel completely and are opposed to the negotiating process itself. Palestinians who support the Islamic group Hamas seek the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine.
Extremists on both sides have tried to derail the process using violent means. Since the start of the intifada, Hamas has been engaged in a longstanding campaign of terrorist violence against Israeli civilians and soldiers. In a string of suicide bus bombings in February and March 1996, 59 innocents were murdered. After a year-long lull in violence, Hamas renewed its violence with a March 1997 suicide bomb attack on a Tel Aviv cafe killing three Israeli women.
In February 1994, a Jewish extremist opened fire on praying Muslims at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 Palestinians and wounding over 60 others. In November 1995, another Jewish extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Israeli society unequivocally rejects its extremist, violent fringe and those who have engaged in violent attacks against Arabs are shunned as outcasts. Unfortunately, Palestinian society is unable or unwilling to repudiate its extremists. Often, killers of Jews are praised as martyrs to the Palestinian cause.
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