THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT
The historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in Washington in September 1993.
In September 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the historic Oslo Peace Agreement, officially called the "Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangments." According to the document, both sides "agree that it is time to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights, and strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed political process." While the Oslo Agreement does not explicitly promise an independent Palestinian state, it establishes a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority to rule the West Bank and Gaza Strip "for a transitional period not exceeding five years," transfers local rule in these areas to the Palestinian police, and authorizes a number of Palestinian governmental agencies to promote economic growth. On the basis of the agreement Arafat promised the Palestinian people an independent state by May 1999. The Oslo Agreement calls for Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip but maintains the Israeli government's responsibility for defending against external threats. Finally, it promises "permanent status negotiations" to deal with unresolved issues such as control over East Jerusalem, a predominantly Palestinian area adjacent to the West Bank, and continuing Jewish settlements in disputed areas. Subsequent negotiations led to a freeze of Jewish settlements in specific areas of dispute.
Rabin, a member of Israel's Labor Party, was assassinated in November 1995 by an Israeli extremist opposed to the peace process. He was replaced by Shimon Peres, who vowed to continue his predecessor's path to peace but was defeated in Israel's elections in June 1996. The country's new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a member of the Likud Party, initially took a harsh stance against the peace process, encouraging the expansion of Jewish settlements in disputed areas. With the peace process stalled Arafat convened an international conference in March 1997 to discuss continued Jewish settlements in disputed areas and pressure the new Israeli government to hold to the Oslo Agreement. Netanyahu softened his stance on the peace process and met with Arafat several times in 1997-98, but each time terrorist attacks by Palestinian extremists against Israeli citizens derailed the efforts to negotiate a permanent peace settlement. Meanwhile, the expansion of Jewish settlements in Arab-controlled areas continues, which the Palestinians claim is in blatant disregard of previous agreements. The two sides met in October 1998 in an effort to revive the peace process, but little was gained and the process remained stalled.
With the stalled Peace Process at the heart of 1999
election campaign, Israeli voters cast their ballots in May for a very
different course from that taken by the Likud Party. Labor Party
candidate Ehud Barak, who vowed to get the peace process back on track,
defeated Netanyahu by a convincing margin. However, less than two
years after the election of Barak the peace process stalled amid growing
tensions and violence, and in special elections called for February 2001,
hardline Likud Party candidate Ariel Sharon won convincingly. Since
the autumn of 2000 there have been almost daily instances of violence and
a new "intifadah" or uprising by Palestinians.