The Declaration of Principles: A History of Unfulfilled Promises

On September 13, 1993, during a ceremony on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C., Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat officially signed the Declaration of Principles – also known as the Oslo I Accord – in the presence of United States President Bill Clinton. This document was an attempt to initiate a framework that would lead to a resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was also the first face-to-face agreement between Israel and Palestine.

Of particular geographical interest were the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although those sectors were currently occupied by the Israel Defense Forces, Palestine had long advocated for the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.”

The Declaration of Principles laid out a five-year plan in which Israel would withdraw from set locations within the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allow an interim Palestinian government (the Palestinian Authority) limited autonomy. It was anticipated that a more concrete arrangement would be made after five years. Because the conflict between Israel and Palestine had existed for so long, the two countries expressed their fervent hope that the Declaration of Principles would result in a peaceful agreement that would satisfy both nations. The desire was for Israelis and Palestinians to begin living and thriving side-by-side in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The optimism surrounding this declaration was made evident by the length of its 17 articles and four annexes. Real, tangible goals to make room for peace rested in the contract between the Israelis and Palestinians. This legal document was meant to signal the beginning of a timed process in which Israel would officially recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization as an autonomous governing body for Palestinians living inside the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat was also allowed to return to the territories. In turn, Palestine would agree to recognize the State of Israel, stop fighting against Jews in the territories and renounce all terrorism against Israel. The introduction to the declaration presented the foundational ideals of the two involved nations:

The aim of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations within the current Middle East peace process is, among other things, to establish a Palestinian interim self-government authority, the elected council, for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, for a transitional period not exceeding five years, leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. It is understood that the interim arrangements are an integral part of the whole peace process and that the negotiations on the permanent status will lead to the implementation of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

The hope was that, if Palestine was given the ability to govern itself in the areas allotted, tensions between the two people groups would diminish, and both could exist within the West Bank and Gaza Strip without conflict. This specific mapping of lands allotted was addressed in the Oslo II Accords, written out in 1994.

“The Oslo Accords have been successful in providing 95 percent of Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza with self-administration and autonomy in most areas of daily life,” said The Philos Project Executive Director Robert Nicholson in an article that appeared the spring issue of Providence Magazine. “It created the Palestinian Authority – an indigenous Arab government that provides law, security and linguistic and cultural authenticity for Palestinians in the territories, not to mention official representation across the globe.”

But as history has told us, that ideal five-year plan was less than successful. Although clearly mapped out, it was still a difficult journey for both sides, as accusations were tossed out regarding which rules from the Declaration of Principles were being followed and which were not. The tension of the stalemate, increasing violence, and many other setbacks slowed the peace progress. U.S. involvement went back and forth in active engagement to resolve the conflicts and move the peace dealings along, and the U.S. government’s attention eventually shifted more toward the relationship between Syria and Israel and away from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“We made progress – substantial progress,” said Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s negotiator. “We are closer than ever to the possibility of striking a final deal. My heart aches, because I know we were so close. We need six more weeks to conclude the drafting of the agreement.”

Despite a final attempt to reconcile Israel and Palestine during the Camp David Summit in 2000, the talks broke down and that much-anticipated summit ended without an agreement.

Although Rabin, Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize for their involvement in the Oslo Accords and “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East,” the Oslo Accords never successfully brought about true peace.

“The failure of the Palestinian Authority to move toward independent statehood is driven by intra-Palestinian conflict between Fatah and Hamas, the rise of violent Islamism, undeveloped infrastructure and development, and the lack of a positive vision for what the future State of Palestine will be,” Nicholson said. “Underlying all of this is a continuing rejection of Jewish sovereignty next door among at least a third of the Palestinian people. Corruption, poor leadership, and continued blame shifting have ensured that Palestinians remain in a state of suspension between statelessness and full sovereignty.”

While Ben-Ami had expressed true optimism about the long-term success of the accords, division re-entered the land, with both sides becoming increasingly suspicious about the other’s motivations. Israel eventually made the decision to regain control of the West Bank to protect its people from more attacks. By 2002, Israel and the PLO were no closer to brokering peace than they had been at the beginning of the process eight years earlier.

Thirteen years later, the goals of the Declaration of Principles have still not come to fruition. The last known talks failed in Egypt in 2014, with U.S. involvement by Secretary of State John Kerry. In 2015, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, announced that he felt the PA was no longer bound to the Oslo Accords that he himself had signed. At the time, many felt that this was an empty-aired threat like the many he had presented before. The fact remains that in pushing back against that contract, Abbas unleashed a new wave of violence and unrest. With no resolution in sight, Israel and the PLO stand no closer together today than they did in 1993.

“The future of the Oslo Accords is unclear,” Nicholson said. “Many Palestinians have lost faith in their leaders and call for equal rights and inclusion within greater Israel. Unless Palestinian leaders step up to articulate a positive and peaceful vision of the Palestinian future, it is very possible that the framework erected by Oslo will collapse under its own weight. As someone who cares deeply about self-determination of peoples, I find that thought troubling.”

This article originally appeared on Philos Project and reposted with permission.