Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Part II: From the October War of 1973 to the Oslo Accords (1973 – 1990)

The October War of 1973

The Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict became more and more intertwined with the Cold War. The Soviet Union strengthened its ties with Egypt and Syria. In November 1971, Washington produced a memorandum of understanding with Israel, concerning military aid and coordination of policy.

The political stalemate prompted Egypt and Syria to try to force a breakthrough by military means. On 6 October 1973, both countries undertook a coordinated surprise attack on Israel aimed at regaining territory lost in 1967.

The exact background of why and how the Arab forces were able to trick Israel into believing that massed troops had only left their bases for large war games, remains subject for academic debate and wild speculation. Israeli generals are said to have suffered from ‘cognitive closure’, a term describing the human inclination to eliminate ambiguity and arrive at definite conclusion. It was even rumoured that President Nasser’s son-in-law Ashraf Marwan was a Mossad agent who had failed to inform his spymasters in Tel Aviv what was afoot because he had been ‘turned’ again. Conventional wisdom has it that Israeli military intelligence kept thinking it was very unlikely the Arabs were, six years after total defeat, capable of complex deception combined with an even more complex offensive, thus ignoring the multiplying signs that an attack was imminent. To be on the safe side, some Israeli armed forces were put on alert status.


Only after a pilotless Firebee drone returned on the morning of Saturday 6 October 1973 from the Suez Canal zone with irrefutable evidence that the large-scale surprise offensive was only hours away, did the message hit home. Total mobilization was declared, but that took time since many Israeli soldiers were on leave for Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), a holy day on the Jewish calendar and a national holiday. Time, there was not. Tens of thousands of Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal with amphibious vehicles and bridging equipment. With large water pumps they hosed down the high sand barrier on the Israeli side and soon convoys of armoured vehicles trundled through the gaps. Opposing them were only hundreds of Israeli troops positioned in bunkers, who were quickly overrun.

Click to enlarge. ©Fanack

Israel had always put trust in its air power to quickly destroy any Arab offensive that threatened the country. In this respect the occupied territories, the Golan and the Sinai served as strategic depth. However, the Egyptians had anticipated the quantitative and qualitative edge the Israeli air force enjoyed over the Arab pendants. The Egyptian troops were protected by the latest Soviet air defence equipment, including modern mobile Surface to Air Missiles (SAM), radar-controlled guns and shoulder fired SAMs. Before Sunday evening this multilayered umbrella had succeeded in destroying thirty counter-attacking Israeli aircraft. At this rate, the Israeli air force would not last for two weeks of operations. However, the SAM-‘umbrella’ had its limitations: the Egyptian troops did not want to venture from under it.

The Golan Heights

On the Golan front the surprise was as big as in the Sinai. The Israeli troops held the high ground but they were outnumbered ten to one, in men, tanks and artillery pieces. By a daring helicopter assault on an intelligence outpost on top of Mount Hermon, Syrian commandos beat the Israeli forces in a game the Israelis thought they were masters in. The Syrians got hold of some American high-tech intelligence equipment, but their aim was more ambitious: throw the two armoured brigades with 180 tanks from the Golan Heights, dig in with their 1300 or so tanks and create a ‘fact on the ground’. For Israel this was the darkest hour of the war. From a general’s viewpoint the Syrian tank army looked on the threshold of entering Israel proper.

Click to enlarge. ©Fanack

It is said that at this point Israeli aircraft and Jericho missiles were loaded with nuclear warheads to avoid or avenge a total collapse. The Syrian tanks did not succeed. The two Israeli armoured brigades took advantage of prepared positions, higher ground and marksmanship in narrowly defeating the Syrian onslaught. They bought time for reserve units to arrive. In a tactic that was later adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces to stem the threat of a feared massive Soviet tank attack, the available formations were not used to shore up the defences of the most threatened sector, but to attack a weak spot in the attacker’s formations.

Stabilization and New Offensives

Armoured columns in the Sinai Desert during the October War 1973 oslo accords
Armoured columns in the Sinai Desert during the October War in 1973 Photo magnum/HH

After some days the Syrian and Egyptian fronts had stabilized. Everybody pondered what the next round should be. Fierce Israeli counterattacks were inevitable. The Egyptian high command was split whether it should launch an attack from the relative safety of the SAM-umbrella. Syria’s offensive had stalled for the moment, but a second round was in the making.

On the international scene there were also movements. Arab reinforcements, from Morocco, Jordan and Iraq were on their way to the fronts. American and Soviet airlifts began re-supplying Israel and the Arab states in earnest as of 12 October, 1973. Especially Soviet SAMs were in short supply, and Israel could test American low flying, standoff Maverick missiles against the dangerous SAM-batteries.

Halfway through October Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat, against the advice of some of his generals, ordered his military to go on the offensive and occupy a number of passes in the centre of the Sinai. At the same time Israeli forces were on their way to cross the Suez Canal near the Great Bitter Lake. In doing so they could eliminate the SAM-batteries with ground forces and threaten to cut off the Egyptian Third and Second Armies that were lodged on the east bank of the canal.

On 14 October, 1973 Egyptian armoured formations started their offensive from under the SAM-protection. The results were devastating: without air protection their tanks were vulnerable to air interdiction and close air support. The remainder of the Egyptian offensive was defeated by Israeli tank forces. The day before the bulk of the Syrian attacking tank forces had been defeated on the Golan.

Israelis crossing the Suez Canal

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan (l) and general Ariel Sharon (m) at the bridgehead crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973 / Photo Magnum/HH
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan (l) and general Ariel Sharon (m) at the bridgehead crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973 / Photo Magnum/HH

Israeli general Ariel Sharon pried open the weak seam between the two Egyptian armies and undertook the long rehearsed crossing of the Canal on 15 October, 1973. At first small-scale forces trickled into Egypt, but within days sizable Israeli forces held a bridgehead on the west side of the canal.

Egyptian counterattacks were fierce but led to nothing. Sharon’s forces succeeded in cutting-off the Third Army and at some point looked to be able to push lightly towards Cairo.

Ceasefire and Mediation

International mediation gathered pace. Both the Soviet-Union and the United States considered a total Israeli victory as less desirable. On October 22, the UNSC passed Resolution 338, in which all parties in the fighting were ordered to cease fire. It furthermore called ‘upon all parties concerned to start immediately after the ceasefire the implementation of Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) in all of its parts’, and for the start of negotiations ‘aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East’.

On October 24, when the United Nations brokered ceasefire intended to end the Arab-Israeli War had come into force, further fighting started between Egyptian and Israeli troops. Western intelligence reports concluded that the Soviet Union was planning to send paratroopers to Egypt to protect the Egyptian troops.

At that time, the American President Nixon was in the throes of the Watergate scandal, so foreign affairs secretary Henry Kissinger declared DEFCON 3 – Defence Condition 3, a heightened nuclear alert posture of the American armed forces. This was meant to repel the Soviet Union to take any action and it worked. It avoided further escalation. On October 26, all hostilities ceased.

The outcome of the October War was a victory for Israel. However, achieving initial surprise over the Israelis, who had been thought to be invincible, proved a solid psychological win for the Arabs, no matter what happened after the initial gains.

Attempting to reach a diplomatic agreement, the United States and the Soviet Union invited Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria to a peace conference in Geneva (Switzerland), to hold talks on the basis of ‘242’ and ‘338’. Syria declined to participate; the PLO was not invited. The Geneva Conference, chaired by the UN Secretary-General, took place on 21 December 1973. No concrete results were gained, other than a pledge to set up a military working group, entrusted with the disengagement of the armed forces. Consequently, disengagement agreements were reached between Israel and Egypt (18 January 1974) and between Israel and Syria (31 May 1974).

Israel-Egypt Interim Agreement

In all, after years of stagnation, the near-defeat of Israel, or the near-victory of Arab states, had created a new military and political reality in the Israeli-Arab conflict. This opened the way for renewed diplomacy. Shuttle diplomacy by the American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and secret contacts between Egypt and Israel would bear fruit. Egypt eventually decided to break ranks with the other Arab states and enter into a bilateral deal with Israel in order to regain the Sinai Peninsula, which was still occupied by Israel. And thus, in the midst of the Cold War, Egypt switched to the American camp, after severing its military and other relations with the Soviet Union.

For Israel, a peace deal with Egypt – its main Arab opponent – was of great importance, since it would neutralize its southern front and deprive its remaining Arab opponents of any (conventional) war option. O 4n September 1975, both countries signed an Israel-Egypt Interim Agreement, in which further military arrangements were made and in which they declared their intention to reach ‘a final and just peace settlement by means of negotiations [as] called for by Security Council Resolution 338’. On 22 September 1975, this was followed by a second round of disengagement in the Sinai Peninsula.

Sadat’s Trip

On 19 November 1977, Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat surprised friend and foe by travelling to Jerusalem for a two-day visit. He held talks with members of the Israeli government and addressed the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. A month later, on 25/26 December 1977, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met in Ismailia (Egypt) to seal the Israeli-Egyptian diplomatic breakthrough.

In the new situation, a planned second round of the multilateral Geneva Conference seemed irrelevant and was cancelled. Yet six years later, at the request of the UNGA, a second UN conference would take place in Geneva (from 23 August-7 September 1983) in which 137 UN member states participated. It was boycotted by the United States and Israel. In its final declaration, the Conference called for an UN peace conference with the full participation of all parties involved, including the PLO (Geneva Declaration on Palestine).

Camp David I

Egyptian President Sadat’s visit to Israel was followed by intensive negotiations a year later (5-17 September 1978). Sadat, Begin, and American President Jimmy Carter met at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland. The result was what came to be known as the Camp David Accords.

The Camp David Accords consisted of two documents. The first document (Israel-Egypt Framework for Peace in the Middle East of 17 September 1978) contained a general framework on the basis of Resolutions 242 and 338 and urged Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the representatives of the Palestinian people to participate in negotiations concerning ‘the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects’. Concretely, the Palestinians were offered a restricted form of autonomy under a Palestinian National Authority for a five-year period, during which they could elect their representatives. After three years, negotiations would commence on eventual sovereignty. The document was completely silent about self-determination for the Palestinians, and Israel offered no commitment to withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967.

The second document (Peace Treaty Between Israel and Egypt of 26 March 1979) was a detailed peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, providing for a total withdrawal by Israel from the Sinai Peninsula in return for full normalization of the relations between the two countries. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty was eventually signed by Begin and Sadat in Washington on 26 March 1979.

As many in the Arab World and elsewhere predicted, only the second document would be implemented. The negotiations over issues that were outlined in the first document with respect to the position of the Palestinians quickly stalled. In the following years, successive Israeli governments accelerated the construction in the already existing Israeli settlements in Palestine, and created new ones, including ones close to major Palestinian population centres. In addition, Israel annexed East Jerusalem on 30 July 1980 (UNSC Resolution 478 of 20 August 1980), and the Golan Heights on 14 December 1981 (UNSC Resolution 497 of 17 December 1981).

Recognition of the PLO

The Camp David Accords were a major blow to the political aspirations of the Palestinians, particularly since the PLO had made important gains on the level of international diplomacy after 1969. This was especially the case after the Palestinian National Council (Palestinian National Council 10-Point Political Program) had called for the establishment of an ‘independent combatant national authority for the people over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated’ on 19 February 1974 and again on 12 June 1974 – thus making some room for a possible division of Palestine. The PLO Charters of 1964 and 1968, on the other hand, only spoke of a solution for Palestine as a whole. This fundamental change of position would turn out to be a source of tension within the ranks of the PLO. After all, the political position no longer was to insist on the creation of a secular democratic state in the whole of Palestine with equal rights for Palestinians and Jews alike.

Next, in quick succession, came recognition by the United Nations General Assembly of the PLO as ‘the representative of the Palestinian people’ (Resolution 3210 of 14 October 1974) and recognition by the League of Arab States of the PLO as ‘the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in any Palestinian territory that is liberated’ (League of Arab States Resolution of 28 October 1974). Palestine, as represented by the PLO, obtained full membership of the League of Arab States on 9 September 1976. On 13 November 1974, PLO chairman Arafat addressed the plenary session of the UNGA, followed by the reaffirmation (UNGA Resolution 2672 of 8 December 1970) by the UNGA of ‘the inalienable rights [of the Palestinian people], in particular its right to self-determination’ (UNGA Resolution 3236 of 22 November 1974) and an UN Observer Status for the PLO ‘in the sessions and the work of the General Assembly’ (UNGA Resolution 3237 of 22 November 1974).

The Lebanon War of 1982

In March 1978, three years after the Civil War in Lebanon broke out, the Israeli army moved into southern Lebanon in an operation against armed PLO units and other groups. Under pressure from the United States and the United Nations, the Israeli Armed Forces withdrew from Lebanon in June. A United Nations peacekeeping force, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), was deployed in the south.

On 4 June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon again in an effort to destroy the PLO infrastructure (which was well-developed to the extent that many Lebanese spoke about ‘a state within a state’). Further objectives were to reduce the political aspirations of the Palestinians in the territories occupied in 1967 and to weaken the position of Syria, present in Lebanon with a military force since 1976. Indeed, the substantial Syrian military presence in the Beqaa Valley presented a significant military factor that had to be taken into account.

In 1981 the Syrian army had closed the ‘gate to Damascus’ with armoured forces under a network of Soviet-type surface-to-air missiles, such as the mobile SA-6 and SA-9.

These sophisticated missiles had cost the Israeli air force dearly during the war of 1973. However, the Israeli forces had worked out a way to counter the threat: by using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), at that time called Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV).

Electronic Warfare

Unnoticed, these reconnaissance planes kept track of the SAM-batteries, not just their exact location but also the electronic fingerprint of the early warning and fire control radars. This permitted Israeli electronic warfare systems to blind the SAM batteries and neutralise them with airstrikes and long-range artillery. This tactic set a standard and was subsequently copied all over the world. With the protective umbrella thus removed, the Israeli fighter-bombers would have gained air superiority, were it not for the large-scale counterattack mounted by the Syrian air force. However, this move had been anticipated.

Israeli E-2 Hawkeye airborne warning and control aircraft, equipped with a far looking radar and command and control equipment, saw a hundred MiG-21 and MiG-23 interceptors approaching the airspace over the Beqaa Valley. The pilots of these aircraft relied heavily on information provided by ground controllers in Syria.

Many of the communication links between these ground controllers and air-to-air-fighters had been jammed by Israeli electronic warfare equipment. This critically reduced the situational awareness of the Syrians. The Israeli Hawkeyes on the other hand could vector F-15s and F-16s unhindered towards their handicapped Syrian opponents. Also RPVs flying over Syrian airbases could keep an eye on MiGs on the ground to see if and when they would take off. The result was remarkable: eighty MiGs were destroyed, with no Israeli losses. Fearing annihilation, hundreds of Syrian tanks withdrew from the Beqaa Valley into Syria.

By September most of the Israeli troops had been withdrawn from Lebanese territory. However, the southern part of Lebanon remained as before under Israeli control (the so-called Security Zone) through its SLA-proxy. Around 10,000 Palestinians and Syrians were killed, as well as 18,000 Lebanese. Israeli losses amounted to 675.

Expulsion of the PLO

After a long siege of Beirut, the PLO was forced to evacuate Lebanon at the end of August. (The Palestinian organization would hold office in Tunis, Tunisia, for the next decade.) Israeli forces occupied West Beirut on 16 September 1982, after the assassination of the Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel.

Between September 16-18, Lebanese Phalange militias massacred almost 2,000 Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila on the outskirts of Beirut which were under Israeli military control. The massacre brought about an international outcry. Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to resign. Israel would withdraw its forces from Lebanon in June 1985, except for a 15 kilometre wide buffer zone along Lebanon’s southern border.

The pro-Israeli government of Lebanon concluded a Peace Treaty with Israel on 17 May 1983, which was, however, abrogated on 5 March 1984.

During the war in Lebanon, the European Community (at that time nine member states) issued the so-called Venice Declaration of 13 June 1982, in which a comprehensive peace on the basis of Resolutions 242 and 338 was advocated, while at the same time the ‘legitimate rights of the Palestinian people’ and ‘its right to self-determination’ were emphasized. The ongoing construction of Jewish settlements was described as ‘a serious obstacle’ to peace.

PLO fighters leaving Beirut in August 1982 / Photo Magnum/HH
PLO fighters leaving Beirut in August 1982 / Photo Magnum/HH

After the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982 / Photo Magnum/HH
After the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982 / Photo Magnum/HH

The Reagan Plan

The war in Lebanon motivated the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, to put forward another Middle East plan. The Reagan Plan (made public on 1 September 1982) called for the resumption of the stalled negotiations on Palestinian autonomy. It spoke about ‘the legitimate rights’ of the Palestinian people and about full autonomy of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (linked to Jordan), yet it also spoke out against the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as against the annexation of these regions by Israel. According to the plan, the future of the West Bank, of (an undivided) Jerusalem, and of the Gaza Strip should be determined by negotiations. It demanded a freeze on the building activities in the Jewish settlements and an Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, except from strategically important parts. The plan was rejected by Israel’s Likud Government. The reaction from the Palestinians was mixed. They were dissatisfied that there were no explicit references to the right of self-determination of the Palestinians and to the rights of the refugees.

The Fahd Plan

At its summit in Fez (Morocco), the League of Arab States endorsed an eight-point plan that had been presented the year before by Crown prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The basic principles of the Fahd Plan of 7 August 1981, were a total withdrawal by Israel from all the territory (West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights) that it had conquered in 1967, the dismantling of all Jewish settlements there, the reaffirmation of the right of the Palestinian people by Israel, under the leadership of the PLO, to self-determination, respect for the rights of the refugees, including the right of compensation for those who did not wish to return; and, after a transition period and under UN supervision, the establishment of a Palestinian state with (East) Jerusalem as its capital. Although not stated explicitly, the plan advocated a two-state approach, with formal recognition of Israel by the Arab states. At the time it was generally ignored, but the basic principles of the plan would be reiterated in later initiatives by Saudi Arabia and the League of Arab States (in 2002, and again in 2007).


The continuation of the occupation would eventually lead to the outbreak of a popular uprising (intifada in Arabic) of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, starting on 9 December 1987. It shortly became clear that the harsh methods used by the Israeli army to quash the uprising were ineffectual. On the contrary, a long period of confrontation commenced. As a consequence, the calls – also in the West – for an end to the occupation swelled. Although the uprising was a spontaneous reaction to the occupation, it was soon organized by local leaders. Among them were representatives of a new current in Palestinian politics: the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the Islamic Jihad. Both organizations remained, by choice, outside the PLO.

In order to regain control over political developments, the PLO leadership in exile in Tunis took two steps. The first move was the endorsement on 15 November 1988, by the Palestinian National Council of UNSC Resolution 242 and 338, thus formally supporting a two-state approach in future negotiations. At the same time ‘terrorism in all its forms (including state terrorism)’ was rejected. For the United States this finally opened the way to a formal dialogue with the PLO (soon afterwards ties were severed because of the PLO’s pro-Iraqi stand in the Kuwait Crisis).

The second step, on the same day, was the Declaration of Independence of Palestine, solemnly proclaimed by PLO chairman Arafat at the Palestinian National Council meeting in Algiers (Algeria). Although only of a symbolic nature, the objective was clear: the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Both steps were made easier after King Hussein of Jordan, who over the years had lost political influence on the Palestinians concerned, cut Jordan’s legal and administrative ties with the West Bank on 31 July 1988 (only months after the outbreak of the Intifada). Autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank in association with Jordan – the long-time preferred option of the Israeli Labour Party – was thus removed from the political agenda.

A plan by Israel’s Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, which offered interim self-rule to the Palestinians, received no international support (Shamir Plan of 14 May 1989) and was soon forgotten. In the so-called Madrid Declaration of 27 June 1989, the European Union (at that time twelve member states) advocated an international peace conference under the auspices of the United Nations, in which the PLO was also to participate. By that time, the role of the UN in this conflict had become completely marginalized, and with it international law as the guiding principle in conflict resolution. The same applied to the Soviet Union, already in an advanced state of disintegration, and to the European Union. On the international scene, the United States was (and is) the dominant player.

The Gulf War

Armoured vehicles of the Coalition Forces in Kuwait, 1991 october war 1973, oslo accords
Armoured vehicles of the Coalition Forces in Kuwait, 1991 Photo HH

On 2 August 1990, Iraqi air and ground forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait. The United Nations mandated an international coalition, led by the United States, to drive the forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. American President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker succeeded in forming a coalition of 34 nations, including eight Arab countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Syria, and units of the Kuwaiti Armed Forces that had escaped across the border to Saudi Arabia. Jordan, Yemen and the PLO on the other hand politically supported Saddam Hussein. On 17 January 1991, the coalition commenced with air operations against Iraqi positions in both Kuwait and Iraq, followed on 23 February by a massive ground assault over a very wide front, Operation Desert Storm. A hundred hours later the battle was over. During this so-called Gulf War Iraq launched Scud missiles on targets in both Saudi Arabia and Israel, in an attempt to provoke Israeli retaliation, which could have divided the coalition. Under American pressure, Israel did not retaliate.

Oslo Accords 1993-1995

The Road to Oslo

photo group showing major israeli and palestinian figures
PLO leader Yasser Arafat (3rd L) meets three members of the Israeli Peace Committee, Yarcov Arnon (L), Uri Avnery, and Matti Peled (4th L) along with Issam Sartaoui (2nd R) Mahmud Abbas (aka Abou Mazen), and Imad Chakkour, Arafat’s press councilor on January 21, 1983, in a locality in Tunisia. AFP

The Palestinians

The exit of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Lebanese territory – its last stronghold in the Palestine rim countries – was a fundamental shift in the course of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The struggle of the PLO grew faint as the PLO – whose motto is the liberation of the land – was removed from the points of direct contact with the Israeli occupation; as it could no longer exercise its effective military operations through a geographical clash point with its historical enemy, like it did in Jordan or Lebanon. The PLO leadership sought refuge in Tunisia in August 1982.

In 1983, the Fatah Al-Intifada movement, which split from the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), was formed with the support of Syria. It was infuriated with Yasser Arafat at that time because of the outcome of the siege of Beirut in 1982. The split was followed by armed operations in several Lebanese regions between the dissidents and elements of the original movement “Fatah,” who was loyal to the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

These confrontations continued until 1988. Many other factions joined the fray in what was known as the War of the Camps.

The largest faction in the PLO, Fatah, had been weakened due to the tensions that afflicted the organization as a result of the Arab and regional polarization with the main Palestinian factions, which soon became a new influential factor in the conflict within the PLO. The internal unity of the organization, as one of the last influential tools in the course of the conflict with Israel, was at stake.

With the eruption of the first Palestinian Intifada at the end of 1987, as one of the popularly innovative tools to keep the flame of struggle burning, the organization found – according to researchers – that accepting Security Council Resolution No. 242 as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 1988 would be the best way to restore its role and extricate it from its dire situation on the political landscape.

This was supported by the outcome of the 43rd session of the United Nations, in which the General Assembly recognized the declaration of the state of Palestine, issued by the Palestinian National Council on November 15, 1988. It decided that, from 15 December 1988, the name “Palestine” shall be used in the United Nations instead of “the Palestine Liberation Organization” without infringement to the observer status and functions of the PLO in the United Nations.

However, the PLO found itself in new isolation because of the consequences of the international balance of power with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In addition, the flow of funds from donor countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Gulf states stopped, because the organization and its leader Yasser Arafat supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War (1991-1990) after the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. Israel was the stronger party and the PLO was under pressure. It wanted to re-emerge on the scene and fight for the state of Palestine.

The PLO moved forward practically, to directly negotiating with Israel.

The Israelis

Rabin talks to Palestinians
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin (C) listens to Palestinians during a visit to Nablus on the West Bank on October 18, 1988. SVEN NACKSTRAND / AFP

On the other hand, the bone-breaking policy adopted by Yitzhak Rabin’s government did not succeed in extinguishing the flame of the Palestinian Intifada, or what was called the Intifada of the Children of Stones. Israel, which was refusing to even talk with the PLO, was finally convinced that it does not make sense to have a neighbor within a stone’s throw, always consumed by feelings of resentment, so it preferred to accept – even in theory – the two-state option.

In parallel, the Madrid Conference was launched in 1991, which was sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union (at that time). The conference that was held in the Spanish capital aimed to draw inspiration from the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979, by encouraging other Arab countries to sign peace agreements with the Jewish state.

Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria were encouraged to do so, which opened a path to negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the first time under the Israeli Labor Party, whose government did not open up to peace diplomacy with the Palestinians until 1992.

Israel entered the Oslo negotiations, fully aware of Yasser Arafat and the PLO’s weakness at that time, and that Arafat was facing financial troubles due to betting on the losing horse in the Gulf War, which made him prone to more concessions, especially since he had no other options that could be considered at that time, be it international arbitration, or the option of resistance to put Israel in a disadvantageous situation if direct negotiations take place.

After eight months and fourteen sessions of discussions, behind a thick veil of secrecy under Norwegian sponsorship, suddenly came what Jan Egeland, the then State Secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the “first of its kind”: representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to a statement containing common grounds that opened the way for the establishment of Palestinian autonomy and mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, to be crystallized in the Oslo Accords. It called for a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian autonomy. The PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist, and Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.

Two Unequal Parties

With the pressure the PLO was facing, and the desire to re-emerge in the struggle for an independent state for the Palestinians, Israel was the stronger party in the equation and carried the biggest weight in the negotiation scale.

Circles close to the secret Oslo negotiations asserted that the room for maneuvering in the unequal relationship between the two negotiating parties was minimal because the stronger party, Israel, was the one who controlled the flow. Hilde Henriksen Waage, a historian at the University of Oslo who was assigned the task of investigating Norway’s role in the Middle East peace negotiations, says that “Norway knew this, took it for granted and knew that the negotiations had to go in Israel’s favor. Otherwise, an agreement would not be achieved.” Waage continued wondering, “But does it mean that an agreement is worse than nothing? At that moment, we always said that an incomplete peace is better than a violent war.” However, Norway was a biased mediator, according to Henriksen Waage, so the agreement reinforced this unbalanced relationship between the two negotiating parties.

Principles of the Accords


handshake between Arafat and Clinton after signing the oslo accords
PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (L) shake hands for the first time, on September 13, 1993, at the White House in Washington DC, after signing the historic Israel-PLO Oslo Accords on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories. J. DAVID AKE / AFP

Oslo I Accord

As mentioned above, the negotiations took place in complete secrecy, facilitated by Norway. The agreement reached by the two parties was signed on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday, September 13, 1993, in the presence of US President Bill Clinton. The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands in the presence of international media.

In the Declaration of Principles issued on that date, the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized “the legitimate and political rights of both,” calling for “the struggle for peaceful coexistence” and “the realization of a comprehensive, lasting and just settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed political process.”

This process consisted of two phases:

The First Phase: A five-year transitional period during which an interim Palestinian government would be formed in parts of Palestine.

The Second Phase: After implementation of the first phase, negotiations on the permanent status of issues such as JerusalemPalestinian refugeesJewish settlements, water, and borders would begin. Undefined borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state remained off the agenda.

In the Madrid Conference negotiations, the Palestinian delegation had refused to address the two issues separately, fearing that Israel would have an advantage in the first stage, and thus the second would not be implemented. The two parties agreed not to take any measures that would negatively affect or nullify the outcome of negotiations on these issues. The details of the interim administration were settled in a separate agreement on May 4, 1994, allowing proceedings to begin. According to the timetable, matters were supposed to be settled between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization no later than May 4, 1999.

Oslo II Accord:

signing oslo accords
US President Bill Clinton (C) observes as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (2nd-L) and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (2nd-R) sign a Palestinian autonomy accord in the West Bank during ceremonies at the White House in Washington, DC, 28 September 1995. Also watching the signing, from the rear, are Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (C) and King Hussein of Jordan (2nd-L). LUKE FRAZZA / AFP

Based on the second agreement (Oslo II) on September 28, 1995, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were divided into so-called areas A, B, and C. Area A covered large Palestinian population areas, except for East Jerusalem and Hebron, from which Israel was to withdraw; after making some modifications, it covered about 18.2% of the total land, in which the Palestinian Authority would be responsible for civil and military administration – the Palestinians used the term “Palestinian National Authority”. Area B, 21.8%, included the villages and their immediate surroundings, in which the civil administration was in the hands of the Palestinian National Authority, while the military administration remained under Israel’s control. In Area C, 60%, sparsely populated areas where there were also Jewish settlements and Israeli military bases, both civil and military administration remained in the hands of the Israelis.


 1. The Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Jericho area was the most significant breakthrough in the century-old conflict between Palestinians and Jews in Palestine.

 2. Both Oslo Accords formed a historic agreement. It endeavoured to end a long history of mutual denial and mutual rejection between the two main parties in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s legitimacy was enshrined in the Palestinian National Charter in 1968, Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister between 1969 and 1974, summarized Israel’s rejection of Palestinian national rights by saying, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people. It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.”

 3. The two sides agreed to the principle of territorial compromise as the basis for settling their long and bitter dispute, as the basis for their peaceful coexistence. Partition was not a new idea; it was first proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937, and again by the United Nations in 1947, but was rejected on both occasions by the Palestinians.

 4. Recognizing that both sides would refrain from imposing their vision on the other side. The two sides abandoned the ideological dispute over who is the rightful owner of Palestine and turned to find a practical solution to the problem of dividing the narrow stretch of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

 5. The agreement ended the two-year stalemate in the Middle East peace talks under American facilitation that began at the Madrid Conference in October 1991. For Jordan, the Oslo Process had removed the last obstacle to striking a peace deal with Israel. A day after the agreement was presented to the world, in a more modest ceremony at the State Department, representatives of Jordan and Israel signed a common agenda for detailed negotiations aimed at a comprehensive peace treaty.

 6. Arab reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian agreement were somewhat mixed. Arafat was given a polite but gentle reception from the nineteen foreign ministers of the Arab League who met in Cairo a week after the signing ceremony in Washington. But some member states of the League were upset, especially Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

 7. Aside from internal constraints on both sides, there were inherent flaws in the Oslo Accords themselves. The agreement contains so many ambiguities and contradictions that it is open to widely differing interpretations. For the Israeli government, the agreement provides for a temporary arrangement that carries only the most general implications for the permanent transfer of territory or authority. For the PLO, the agreement is the first step toward full statehood. But the two sides could not advance together because they were intent on going in different directions.

International law

Both accords rested on mutually dependent agreements. The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not based upon international law. In fact, the agreements made were technically illegal since according to international law territorial expansion by means of violence is prohibited. Israel should, therefore, within the framework of an agreement with the PLO, have committed to ‘total withdrawal’ from the territories occupied in 1967. However, on the basis of the Oslo Accords, the ‘degree of withdrawal’ was made subject to further negotiations. As this depended on Israel’s willingness in these matters, the end result would probably be determined by the outcome of a debate within Israel rather than by negotiations with the PLO. In addition, Arafat’s party had made concessions to Israel on many essential points for the Palestinians, and the net result was a continuation of Israeli dominance under a different guise. Nevertheless, from one day to the next, Israel’s image had been transformed from an occupying power – which had only recently suppressed the intifada with tough measures – into a negotiation partner of the PLO.

By abandoning the path of international law, the PLO committed itself to an uncertain adventure, thereby hazarding the Palestinian people’s interests. That the situation had come to this cannot be viewed separately from the organization’s now strongly weakened position: in exile in Tunis, financially destitute, and confronted with a loyal yet self-confident leadership in Palestine.

map of palestine according to the oslo accords

For the exact same reasons, Israel sniffed at the opportunity to come to a political arrangement on its own terms with an organization that, because of its historical role within the national movement, was still in the position to enter into agreements on behalf of the Palestinians.

To the outside world, it appeared that a historical compromise had been reached by two sworn enemies. The theatricalities strengthened this impression: historical handshakes on the lawn in front of the White House and the world’s press, Nobel prizes, and so forth. Although the euphoria was initially great in Palestine, Palestinians also immediately spoke against the agreements, using powerful arguments.