US Secretary of State John Kerry began his term during a particularly delicate time in Middle Eastern history. But on Monday evening, as representatives of Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas sat down over an Iftar dinner at the State Department in Washington, DC to resume peace talks after three-year hiatus, it almost seemed as though Kerry had engineered a diplomatic coup of sorts.
The unlikely renewal of talks between the bitterly opposed camps is ostensibly the result of great pressure from newly-minted Secretary of State and the White House itself, as Barack Obama looks towards his legacy, and comes at a time during which the Eastern Mediterranean has been under increasing strain from three years of civil war in Syria. The preliminary meetings that began Monday evening and conclude later on Tuesday have been billed as a momentous opportunity to solve the many intractable issues that stand in the way of a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
President Obama expressed cautious optimism on Monday when he said that "The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith”. And though it is undoubtedly a positive sign that talks are even happening at all, the nine months of negotiations that this unusually intimate meeting is supposed to kick off began amid public displays of retrenchment on both sides, with Israelis preferring to get right to “final status issues” such as Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees, and the Palestinians leaning instead in the direction of an incremental approach that would begin with borders and security.
While there is a great deal of skepticism surrounding the outcome of this most recent push for a settlement of the decades-old conflict, it should be remembered that talking over dinner was an unthinkable act for both parties prior to the 1990’s. In this two-part series that will cover the outcome of these inaugural meetings, we begin with a brief overview of the peace process from its beginnings at the Madrid conference over 20 years ago.
To understand how both sides came, or rather were forced, to the table in the first place, the most obvious starting point would be the outbreak of massive protests that occurred in the occupied territories in the late 1980’s.
In 1987, widespread civil unrest boiled over into the streets of the West Bank and Gaza strip. The first Intifada, an Arabic word that means “to shake off”, posed a serious threat to both the Israeli occupation as well as the authority of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had since 1967 been designated as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, and was at that time in exile in Tunisia.
For the Israeli government, the Intifada was a public relations nightmare. After years of hearing about Palestinian terrorism-the numerous airplane hijackings of the ‘70s, the senseless massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games in 1972-much of the Western world, as well as many Israeli citizens, for the first time saw images of ordinary Palestinians, including a great many women and children, confronting a vastly better-trained, better-equipped, and brutal army with little else than stones and Molotov cocktails.
But the Intifada created a PR nightmare for the PLO as well. The massive protests against the occupation sprung up without permission from or coordination with the organization. Indeed, Palestinians were protesting the corruption and ineptitude of their own leaders almost as much as they were the occupation itself. In the process, they drew the attention squarely to the plight of the people, rather than the sensational tit-for-tat attacks between the PLO and the Israeli security apparatus that had previously dominated headlines.
And thus it was that Israeli and Palestinian leaders were driven to the negotiating table. While the iconic image of the 1993 handshake on the White House lawn -between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin has left a popular impression that then newly elected President Bill Clinton had organized the historic meeting, it was actually the administration of George H.W. Bush that had done the leg-work to set up the talks.
The Madrid Conference convened on October 30, 1991, at the behest of the US and the USSR, the last conference ever held with both superpowers in attendance. President Bush, armed with fresh political capital after the quick and bloody expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait earlier in the year, thought this to be the most propitious moment to apply pressure not only on Israel and the Palestinians, but also the other states in the Levant that had historically been integral to the conflict, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, to come to the table and talk about a peace deal.
Bush, along with then-Secretary of State James Baker, were interested in what was basically a land-for-peace deal that would put an end to the conflict by granting the Palestinians a state of their own via an agreement could be bolstered by the involvement of all relevant parties. The end goal was to create a framework by which relations between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors could eventually be normalized.
The somewhat complex mixture of bi-lateral talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, and multi-lateral talks between the regional actors, including the US and the USSR, were not without their complications, but had managed to achieve some initial successes. Primarily, Madrid was extremely significant in that it established an alternative to the outright violence that had characterized the relationship between the sides up to that point.
This, at least, was the outward appearance of the situation. But the tentatively promising results of Madrid were almost entirely scuttled by secret negotiations that had been taking place more or less simultaneously between the Israeli government and the PLO. It was a desperate move on the part of Yasser Arafat, who was perhaps sensing that control of the Palestinian people and their cause was slipping from the organization’s grasp, as had been made painfully evident by the PLO’s relative lack of ability to influence the course of the Intifada in any significant way. For their part, the Israelis preferred to negotiate with a much weaker counter-party, and out of sight of the watchful eyes of regional actors as well as the guarantees of the world’s superpowers.
These secret talks were eventually formalized as the Oslo Accords, taking place as they did in the Norwegian city of that name. The aforementioned image of Arafat shaking hands with President Rabin in September of 1993 on the White House lawn in the presence of President Clinton marked the official signing of the accords. The Oslo agreement provided for an interim Palestinian government, the Palestinian National Authority, who over a 5-year period would gradually assume more control of larger areas of the West Bank and Gaza, with more intractable issues such as the plight of Palestinian refugees and the status of East Jerusalem left to be resolved at a later date.
Unfortunately, little has changed for the better, and much has changed for the worse since those days. Yitzhak Rabin would be assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli radical, Yigal Amir, precisely for his role in signing the Oslo accords. The murder of Rabin was a serious blow to the already tenuous framework for negotiations, and did away with what good will might have been established between the parties. The breakdown of talks was exacerbated to some extent by the dawdling and short-lived tenure of Shimon Peres as Prime Minister- a term that lasted less than a year, from November 1995 to June of 1996- and was further reinforced by the first term of Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud government that lasted nearly three years, from June of 1996 to July of 1999.
[Image: Clinton hosts Yasser Arafat and Yitzha Rabin on the White House Lawn in 1993, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]