1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords leave a complicated legacy

Tania Krämer
September 12, 2023

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators signed the Oslo Accords, an interim peace agreement, 30 years ago. There's still no lasting peace and the conflict's main issues remain unsolved.

Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat stand on the lawn at the White House behind a large table. They shake hands as Bill Clinton puts out his arms out behind them
Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yassir Arafat shake hands in Washington on September 13, 1993Image: Avi Ohayon/GPO

The photo of the handshake between Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, then-chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and Israel's then-Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin seems a distant reality these days. 

On September 13, 1993, US President Bill Clinton hosted the two leaders to sign the Declaration of Principles on Interim Arrangements of Self Governance — what came to be known as the Oslo Accords — on the White House lawn in Washington.
The interim agreement created the Palestinian Authority and gave it limited authority over parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip — territories Israel had captured and occupied in the war in 1967. The accords had extended mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and allowed Arafat, who resided in Tunisia at the time, and other exiled Palestinians to live in the West Bank and Gaza.

In the years following the accord, many Palestinians and Israelis hoped that a lasting and just peace could be achieved between them. But that hope has long faded. 

Secret track led to interim agreement 

Thirty years on, Yossi Beillin reflects on that era. After the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991, which brought Israelis, Palestinians and negotiators from other Arab countries together, the Israeli politician initiated contact with members of the PLO.

This led to a secret track of negotiations in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

"My purpose originally was very modest. From my point of view, it was just a way behind the scenes to put things in order to solve the gaps," Beilinwho became deputy foreign minister under Rabin, told DW.

The track proceeded while Palestinians and Israelis were also officially negotiating in Washington, DC. 

In Washington, it was Ghassan Khatib who sat on the Palestinian side of the negotiating table. The Palestinian scholar was part of the group of negotiators from the West Bank and Gaza who were holding official talks with Israeli officials in the US capital. The parallel secret track in Oslo, he told DW, was unknown to the team in Washington.

One issue the two sides fought over in Washington was settlements. The team in Washington insisted that any agreement needed a written commitment by Israel to stop the expansion of settlements.

"That was something Israel did not accept. That's why we didn't reach an agreement," Khatib told DW.

Eventually, it was the secret track in Oslo that led to the interim agreement.

"In Oslo, Israel recognized the PLO and in return, the PLO accepted an agreement without a [written] Israeli commitment to stop the expansion of settlements," said Khatib, who today is a lecturer of international relations at Bir Zeit University in the occupied West Bank.

He sees the settlement issue as one of the main reasons why Oslo didn't succeed.

Meanwhile for Beilin, the main issue remains that Oslo was not a peace treaty but a transitional framework that was supposed to lead to a permanent agreement within five years.

"I don't see myself as the defender of Oslo. Oslo was a tool [towards a permanent treaty], but I am not enthusiastic about interim solutions," said Beilin, who points at successive right-wing governments in Israel that he says were not interested in an agreement. "The failure of Oslo is that we never got to our real target, which was a permanent agreement." 

Beilin says that he pushed early on for negotiating a final status, warning Yitzhak Rabin that a five-year period would give extremists on both sides an opportunity to thwart the agreement.

"It would have been very difficult to talk already then about the permanent agreement but not impossible. Maybe we could have saved a lot of time, a lot of casualties on both sides," he said. 

Sure enough, there was an escalation from extremists on both sides. Palestinian militant Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched a series of suicide attacks and bombings in which hundreds of Israelis were killed and wounded in the years following the signing of the Oslo Accords. Israel's right-wing opposition staged a series of mass demonstrations against the agreement. In 1994, an Israeli extremist opened fire on Muslim worshippers during Ramadan in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, killing 29 Palestinians. The violence culminated in the 1995 assassination of Israel's prime minister, Itzhak Rabin, by a Jewish right-wing extremist who opposed the peace process.

Different tracks to reach an agreement 

Thirty years later, most Palestinians and Israelis have turned their backs on Oslo.

"Only one third of the [Palestinian] public remain in support of Oslo agreement, while it used to be in the 70% in the weeks and months after signing it," said Khatib, who oversees regular opinion polls among Palestinians.

Palestinians observe that despite signing an agreement, Israel is "still taking more land, settling more settlers and restricting the Palestinians in their confined areas," he added.

That is particularly relevant for the young generation, which has not experienced any substantial attempt to negotiate an agreement.

"They think that Oslo is responsible for many of our difficulties that we are living in," Khatib said. 

Aparment houses on dry land with mountains behind them
Jewish housing in the Ma'aleh Adumim settlement in the West Bank: Israel's settlement expansion is still a major issue todayImage: Debbie Hill/UPI Photo via Newscom/picture alliance

Since the Oslo Accords, Israeli settlements have continued to expand. At the end of 1993, there were about 116,300 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

Israel withdrew all its settlements in Gaza in 2005, but today there are about 700,000 settlers in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are illegal under international law and seen as a major obstacle to any future agreement.

Moreover, the Oslo Accords failed to end Israel's military occupation of the Palestinian Territories, which has now been in place for 56 years, since the 1967 War. The core issues remain unsolved: delineating borders between the two states, the future of the city of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees and security arrangements. 

This is reality for young Palestinian Shadha Musallam who heads a start-up. Born in Tunisia to a Palestinian refugee mother from Lebanon and a Palestinian father in exile, who worked as head of office with Palestinian leader Arafat in Tunisia, her family was able to move to the West Bank town of Jericho after the agreement.

"After Oslo, the Palestinian Authority passport was created. Before that we didn't have any document pertaining to Palestine. That was life-changing in the sense that we now have a nationality," she told DW.

However, looking at Oslo from today, "it was all a bit rushed" and important details were not negotiated, she said.

"I blame Israel a lot because they did not keep any component of their part in the Oslo agreement," Musallam said. "The A-B-C structure of the land was supposed to be how they will be moving out of the territories or stopping the settlement construction, and they did the opposite." 

Black and white photo of the leaders in suits standing and fixing their ties in a stately room in the White House
From left: Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, Egyptian President Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein, US President Bill Clinton and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat fix their ties before the signing ceremony of the Oslo II AccordsImage: White House photographer/GPO

Musallam refers to the remnants of the Oslo II agreement, signed in 1995, which stipulated the division of the occupied West bank in three administrative areas for a transitional time of five years. Today, the Palestinian Authority has limited control over area A, and the transitional plan was never implemented.

But she is also critical of the Palestinian leadership. "After five years of seeing the agreement fail, they should have taken definitive steps in countering that inaction from Israel. I blame them for not reacting for over 30 years now." 

'There is only one option now: One State' 

Palestinian Fathi Al Ghoul is a young CEO-founder of a marketing start-up in Ramallah.

"There is a lot to say about Oslo, and a lot of things were wrong, but most importantly we got recognition, an identity," he told DW.  

The young Palestinian was born in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria.  After the Oslo Accords, the family was able to come to Gaza, where Al Ghoul grew up in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. They had to move to the West Bank in 2007, when Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority  

"In general, with regards to Oslo, it failed. It was a process and was supposed to end with a two-state solution. But if you look at reality, I think Israel killed the dream of the two-state solution," Al Ghoul said, referring to the notion of the creation of an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel. "We really wanted that there will be two states, side by side, now the only option is a one-state solution."  

These days, the young CEO is worried about plans by the far-right Israeli government to annex parts of the occupied West Bank and the increase in extremist settler attacks against Palestinians.

"There is the occupation, and there are [Israeli] checkpoints and many difficulties in moving around. But these days I am really afraid to go to Nablus or Bethlehem. I am really afraid of the settlers," he said.

An Israeli soldier stands holding a weapon while talking to a driver in a car
An Israeli soldier stops a driver at a checkpoint at the entrance of a Palestinian village south of Nablus in the West BankImage: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

A generation without any peace process 

Opinion surveys among youth on both sides suggest that they are far less in favor of a two-state solution than previous generations who experienced some attempts of finding a solution.  
In Israel, only 20% of Jewish Israeli youths aged 18-34 are in favor of a two-state solution, according to a joint poll published in January 2023 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah and the International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University. 

Dorit Shechter lives in an Israeli settlement in the Binyamin region in what she refers to as Judea and Samaria, a biblical name for the West Bank. 

"I personally think it [Oslo] was a huge mistake. Every time Israel gave land for any peace agreement, it blew up, it literally blew up in our eyes," said Shechter, who grew up in a city near Tel Aviv and describes herself as religious. She remembers a childhood marked by Palestinian attacks and bombings during the Second Intifada [arabic: Uprising] which started in 2000.  

For her, the concept of land for peace doesn't work. "I would say first of all, we must not give any piece of land of Israel. It is, for sure, not bringing peace, but it brings only terror. I think that not making a decision is also a kind of solution. So, we should just leave it as it is," she told DW. 

From Oslo baby to post-Second Intifada soldier 

Hillel Assaf, an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem, has a different view.

"I was an Oslo baby, and I became a post-Second intifada soldier," said Assaf, referring to the Palestinian uprising with casualties on both sides. After serving as a soldier in the occupied West Bank, he later became active in Breaking the Silence, a group of army veterans critical of the ongoing military occupation of the Palestinian Territories

 He thinks new ideas and a new generation of politicians are needed to bring about change.  

"You see Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president] in the pictures of the Oslo Accords. [Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Ministerwas doing all the defamation against Oslo," said Assaf, who works for a progressive civil society organization in Israel.

"It's like we can't have a paradigm shift with the same people. It's just not going to happen. So, I really hope these people step off the pedestal and let other people come in," he told DW.

 At the same time, it has become difficult to imagine a new path in the current political atmosphere, he said. 

"I feel closer to some Palestinians than to ultra-nationalist Jews that are supposedly on 'my side.' I'd rather be stuck with the normal people on both sides," said Assaf.

Israel at 75: A history of the country and its people

"So, whatever the solution might be, I hope it comes from the moderate mainstream and not from the fringes of each different group."

Edited by: Rob Mudge and Carla Bleiker