In a carefully choreographed scene, Clinton stood behind the two leaders with his arms outstretched as they shook hands, signaling the United States’s embrace of their agreement and his personal commitment to helping them fulfill the politically risky undertaking.
Twenty-five years later, the conflict continues, marked by bloody outbursts of terrorism and violence, rocket fire and retaliations. Thousands of Palestinians and Israelis have died, many more have been injured. Since then, one American president after another has tried to end it. The Oslo process was supposed to have provided the blueprint, with its requirement for a series of confidence-building interim steps that would help Israeli and Palestinian leaders absorb the political costs of the difficult compromises needed finally to achieve peace. The Oslo Accords did not spell out those compromises; they did not provide for a Palestinian state, nor for a solution for Jerusalem, which both sides seek as their capital, nor for the Palestinian refugees who claim a “right of return.” They only provided that the final-status issues were to be negotiated and concluded within five years of the signing.
Final-status negotiations actually began in spring 2000, in the Clinton administration’s last year, more than seven years after the handshake on the South Lawn. The delay was the result of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dilatory tactics. He had won a narrow victory by running against Oslo and then took up more than two years negotiating agreements for redeployment from parts of Hebron and 13 percent of the West Bank. He was succeeded by Ehud Barak, who preferred to negotiate with Syria first.
By that time, both the sweet and bitter fruits of Oslo had been harvested. Much of the cost of occupation was lifted from Israel’s back as the Palestinian Authority assumed responsibility for governing some 90 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the international community footed the bill. The Accords provided political cover for King Hussein of Jordan to conclude his peace treaty with Israel, and for several Gulf and North African Arab states to begin normalizing relations with the Jewish state. Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad concluded that he too was free to negotiate peace with Israel once Arafat had signed the Oslo deal. And Egypt’s peace with Israel was strengthened by President Hosni Mubarak’s active engagement in the effort to implement Oslo.
But when it came to relations between Israelis and Palestinians, trust had been severely eroded in the meantime. The Oslo Accords were silent on what should happen with Israeli settlements in the 60 percent of the West Bank Israel still controlled pending a final agreement. Accordingly, with final-status negotiations approaching, the settler hardliners pushed aggressively to expand the settlements by legal and illegal means in an effort to forestall any further withdrawal. At the same time, the Palestinian leadership had neither the will nor the capability to prevent terrorist attacks against Israelis perpetrated by Hamas and other splinter groups opposed to the Oslo Accords. Both sides felt betrayed. Instead of building confidence, these dynamics contributed significantly to each side’s questioning of the other’s intentions. In October 2000, mounting Palestinian frustration generated the intifada, or violent uprising, which in turn engendered Israel’s angry response.