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A False Dawn?
The Oslo peace accord as a case study of international mediation, conflict management and religious fundamentalism

Orna Almog
Kingston University, UK


My research examines the Oslo peace process 1993-2000 and will address three main aspects: International mediation; the role of leadership and opposition to conflict resolution.

This paper will focus predominantly on the mediator/s role, in particular the US, and to lesser extent on leadership and religious fundamentalism as an obstacle to peace.


1993 brought an historical shift in the bloody history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The accord between Israel and the PLO – the Oslo peace accord - symbolised a new dawn in their relationship. 

President Clinton, who presided over this historic moment, assured the two sides the support of the only reaming superpower –the US. American involvement as mediators in Middle East conflicts and especially in the Arab-Israeli dispute has a long history. US role is crucial and central to any conflict resolution and conflict management in the region. However, the Oslo accord was achieved without US active participation. In fact it was Norwegian officials and Israeli academics that initiated the talks. Inspite of the fact that the US took a back seat its blessing and approval was crucial.

It is important to note that every Israeli-Arab-Palestinian peace process relied on mediation. As Kenneth Stein and Samuel Lewis argue that -since World War II, every US administrator had had to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. The role of a third party is as central to the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict as is the tradition that such a third party has a dual obligation. Both sides have expected and continue to expect a ‘ mediator umpire’ to play an active role in resolving differences’. 

The role of any mediator is delicate and complicated. In many cases the parties have mixed feelings and they would sometimes welcome an excuse to end the negotiations rather than be forced to make difficult decisions. The mediator should have a good knowledge of the history behind the issues. History weighs very heavily on Arab and Israeli leaders. Memories of past injustices, wars, and betrayals crowd and shape today’s decisions. All parties fear being pulled by outside forces into a risky negotiating process whose end could be national disaster.

If Israeli or Arab leader are to acquire any real confidence in a third party mediator, that person will have to demonstrate real understanding not only of the issues, but also of the historical connections, underlying fears, and basic principles that shape the behaviours of both sides. History, in that sense can be seen as a real obstacle to any Arab-Palestinian negotiation and future agreement. So much so, that part of the success behind the secret channel in Oslo was the fact that both parties agreed not to dwell on the past and to forget about history. Traditionally, the task of conflict resolution has been seen as helping parties who perceive their situation as zero-sum (Self's gain is Other's loss) to recast it as a nonzero-sum conflict (in which both may gain or both may lose), assisting both sides to move towards a positive sum direction

The role of the third party is to assist with this transformation, confronting the top dog if necessary. This means transforming hostile, unbalanced relationships into peaceful and dynamic ones. 

Parties to a conflict accept mediation when they believe it is in their best interests to do so; that is, when they believe that "mediation will gain an outcome that is more favourable than the outcome gained by continued conflict." Similarly, parties will accept mediation when rejecting it will result in greater harms. Parties may fear incurring bad relations with the proposed mediating nation or international sanctions if they refuse to negotiate. In addition, mediation may offer parties a way to negotiate compromises without losing face, and make sure that terrorism and security threat would be eliminated. These two factors are of immense importance as confidence building measures are integral to any resolution.    

Norwegians officials were the first ones to be the facilitators of the process. As a country that is not directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict the Norwegians were able to provide a relatively neutral basis. Yair Hirsfield, member of the Israeli delegate in Oslo, noted that the Norwegians gave the negotiation a real framework. They mediated also with the Americans and without the Norwegians’ skills it would not have worked. They also helped secure financial aid and Terje Larsen, the founder and director of the FAFO, made negotiations easier.

When President Clinton became president the Cold War was over and optimism and belief in a new era dominated the international era. However, the end of the Cold War heralded new challenges

The dominant focus was on domestic issues. But the president made it clear that he wanted to keep the peace process on track. It is clear that the Clinton administration believed that there was a need for an active US role and that the success of the process depended largely on its role.

Some might argue that given the US’ close relations with Israel it is bound to be biased and cannot fulfil one of the main criteria of the mediator which is to be impartial.

However, it is this special relationship that empowers the US to be a mediator. In Israel’s view there is no force, regional or international that Israel trusts apart form the US. Although Egypt and Jordan also assisted Israel throughout the process, it is the US that has real influence over Israel’s decision makers. Furthermore, many Israeli leaders from the right to the left, from Rabin to Netanyahu look towards the US as Israel’s main guarantor. Therefore it is the only party that can exercise pressure on Israel. As Zartman and Touval argue- mediators need not be impartial to be accepted or effective. Instead, they argue, "mediators must be perceived as having an interest in achieving an outcome acceptable to both sides and as being not so partial as to preclude such an achievement".

Furthermore, looking at the history of the conflict it is clear that the Arab leaders themselves considered US involvement and commitment crucial. This was the case after the October 1973 war and the following Camp David agreement of 1979 between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan in 1995.

To that degree the initial stages of the Oslo accord were unique as they were achieved without US aid, but with its blessing and with the assistance of another third party.

Nevertheless, the importance of the US was quite clear after the DOP was signed and especially after Rabin’s assassination in 1995.

But even during Rabin’s time in office, even before the official ceremony in the White House in 1993, the US had to put pressure on Rabin and convinced him to attend the ceremony. Rabin had its own reservation of shaking Arafat’s hand in front of millions of people, thus politically recognise what he perceived to be a terrorist organisation.

During Rabin’s premiership the US had an easier task, as Rabin and Peres were fully committed to implementing the agreement.  There were however, difficulties in that period as well. But, to large extent the Oslo spirit, was still alive.

After Rabin’s assassination the Clinton administration became much more involved in the process. Both Netanyahu and Barak relied heavily on the US and especially on the President’s personal involvement. When Benjamin Netanyahu – Bibi was elected the entire process was in danger of collapsing. As head of the right wing Likud party, Netanyahu was staunchly opposed to the agreement. Netanyahu’s ideology was very different to those in the Labour party and he believed in the ideology of ‘Greater Israel’. He also disputed the legitimacy of the PLO to represent the Palestinians because it was never elected. Furthermore, the slogan ‘Land for Peace’ which was advocated by many in the Labour party was not accepted by Bibi.

When Madeline Albright became secretary of state she consulted James Baker who suggested using the same methods he employed with the former PM Shamir before the Madrid conference in Oct 1991. According to this strategy it would be wise to accept both sides demands, indicating US’s willingness to take the initiative and be patient. Indeed, her patient was putting to the test many times. Albright was quick to learn and realised she had difficult ‘clients’. Arafat and Netanyahu, she wrote, lived about twenty miles and one universe apart.

Clinton, the chief mediator put all his weight and credibility to further the negotiation.  He laid out a detailed plan for a phase withdrawal from the West Bank and during the Camp David summit in 2000 he promised $8 million from the participants of the economic summit in Okinawa putting the total amount available for refugee rehabilitation and resettlement and compensation around $40 billion.

 Both the Israeli and the Palestinian delegates share the feelings that Clinton did it utmost and was very familiar with all the details. According to Mohammed Sajani, director and founder of the American Institute Studies and the Jerusalem Studies, Clinton encouraged the Palestinans and the Israelis alike to rise above scepticism and animosity. He called upon both of parties to seize the opportunity to establish peace between their people.

However, Clinton frustration was evident, especially towards the end of his presidency. Few days before he left office, He and the Chairman had one of their last conversations. Arafat thanked the President for all his efforts and told him he was a great man.  But the President replied by saying-‘ Mr Chairman I am not a great man, I am a failure and you have made me one.’

This study will question the effectiveness and the limitations of mediation upon conflict resolution. In addition this research will also address the question of CBM in a lengthy- bloody dispute.

The other two main issues this research examines are- the role of leadership and religious groups as opposition to the peace process.

Historians and political analysts have debated whether great moments, or turning points in history are the result of a special momentum and right timing, or due to great leadership. It is no doubt that both are crucial, however, if the right brave leader is not there to seize the opportunity then no progress or process will take place. It was the election of the Israeli Labour party in 1992 lead by Yitzhak Rabin that paved the way for the Oslo peace accord. Initially Rabin was apprehensive about the back channel negotiations in Oslo, especially in view of the unsuccessful negotiations in Washington at the time. Rabin’s main aim was a peace accord with Syria and the negotiations with the Palestinians were secondary.

However, once it was clear that peace with Israel’s northern neighbour was not on the cards and that there were real chances of agreement with the Palestinans Rabin was willing to give it a chance.

For many years, successive Israeli governments built their policies around the collective sense of isolation - as a ‘nation that shall dwells alone’. It was common to both labour and Likud governments. It was a genuine feeling but also one that was used to justified certain foreign and defence policies. Rabin recognised it was time to break away from the paralysing sense of isolation and victimhood. ‘We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation, and cooperation that is sweeping the entire globe lest we be the last ones to remain, all alone, in the station’.

Rabin orientation was pro-American, He liked America very much despite critical attitude of some aspects of American society, and greatly enjoyed the five years stay as the Israeli ambassador to Washington. But more important he believed that only the U.S. was able to offer inducements to the parties involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict and to compensate them for the risks taken.

The Oslo agreement had many opponents on both sides. Palestinian organisations opposed the agreement launched a chain of attacks inside Israel: A series of car bombs, suicide bombings and nail bombings struck Israeli centres. On the other hand, the incitement campaign against PM Rabin intensified. Oslo’s aggressive opponents were comprised of many of the settlers in the West Bank and some Likud members including Netanyahu, who manipulated the situation to his own political advantage. Their campaign against Rabin went beyond legitimate criticism of a leader and his policies. Some of the settlers and their associates believed that the law of the land is subordinate to the law of the Torah, God’s instructions are paramount, overruling even the laws of the state. The legal system was worthy as long as it did not clash with their views. It was this belief that served to stimulate discussions of ‘taking necessary action’ against the PM. Looking at some of the settlers’ publications one cannot but be horrified to see how far these discussions went.

Believing that they were God’s messengers, murdering the PM was not out of question. . Many Israelis on the right and especially those belonged to ‘Gush Emunim’ opposed the Oslo agreement because it would lead to Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state, which in their view is a political mistake and a mortal sin. Still, one can argue that in spite of these difficulties there was positive progress. The ‘Oslo Spirit’, which can be described the spirit of good will and trust, was kept. But 4th November 1995 brought a shock no one thought was possible:  In a peace rally in Tel-Aviv Rabin was assassinated by a right wing Israeli Jew.

A fundamentalist and extreme in his views, Amir was a Zionist religious student, influenced by the some of the Rabbis in the settlements perceiving Rabin’s actions as a mortal danger to Israel. Hence, although Amir operated on his own, he was a product of a political stream in Israel that did not respect the democratic process and were convinced they were saving Israel from apocalyptic future.

One would hope that the bullet’s assassination would not succeed in bringing the peace process to a halt, but Rabin’s death created a hole and wounded the process.

We can speculate as to what would have happened if Rabin was not murdered. Would the ‘Oslo spirit’ carry on? Was the problem that How would he have reacted to the growing Palestinian attacks? Would he have managed to keep the public on his side? We can only guess, as we shall never know the answers. But what is clear is that no one enjoyed the same credibility as Rabin and no one had the same ability to see it through. The renewed optimism following Barak’s election in 1999 was short lived. According to the literature, Barak was willing to compromise more than any other Israeli leader   before him, in return for ‘ end of conflict’. But the attempts during the summit in Camp David came to a dead end resulting in new outbreak of violence.

In conclusion- was the Oslo accord the wrong formula or did political environment change to such a degree between 1993-2000? Were there enough CBMs? and was the agreement used as a ‘hostage’ on both sides?

The Oslo process succeeded in changing the paradigm, it created a new reality and mutual recognition, but did not bring an end of conflict or reduction of violence. However, history also teaches us that wars cannot last forever: disputes are eventually resolved, hatred overcome, and peace secured. In Rabin’s words: ‘We can continue to kill -- and continue to be killed. But…we can also give peace a chance’. (5 October 1995: Knesset’s speech)


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Copyright 2006 - Journal of Globalization for the Common Good -

Copyright 2006 - Journal of Globalization for the Common Good -