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A LOOK BACK ON THE ROAD TO PEACE

By Rebeca Schiller

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Began, US President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David on September 7, 1978. Photo courtesy of the National Archive and Records Administration.As the new envoy for the Middle East Quartet, former Prime Minister Tony Blair will bring his diplomatic expertise in the latest crusade for Middle East peace. As Mr. Blair prepares for the upcoming rounds of diplomacy perhaps history will provide some insights.

The violent clashes between Israel and Palestine have roots that span over 3,000 years. Israeli claims to the land mass of Israel span back to that first millennium B.C. when the first Israelis established a kingdom. At the same time, Palestinian assertions to the land go back to the Arab conquest in the seventh century A.D. when Jerusalem was occupied by the Caliph Umar, and considered holy by Muslims as the site where Muhammad ascended to heaven.

In the late 19th century, Zionists wished to establish a homeland in Palestine where Jews would be the majority and be politically independent. Meanwhile, Arabs also sought to establish an Arab state, politically independent from Ottoman control. By the end of the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British mandate was established by the League of Nations over the newly defined Palestine. The British--the administrative and governing authority between 1920 and 1948--attempted to pacify the conflicting objectives between its Jewish and Palestinian populations. Failing this, the issue was left to the United Nations.

In 1947, the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into two states--one Arab, one Jewish. The plan was dismissed, the British withdrew on May 14, 1948 and Israel declared statehood.

Since its independence, Israel has fought five wars and two intifadas over land and who rightfully belongs there. As these conflicts separated Israelis and Palestinians and spilled over to neighboring Arab countries, the issues have multiplied between the two entities and in the region, making Middle East peace a U.S. and international diplomatic priority.

The 1978 Camp David talks were the first Arab-Israeli negotiations that brought about the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, resulting in Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. It wasn't until the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 when the U.S. announced that ending the Arab/Israeli conflict was among its postwar aims. In March 1991, President George H.W. Bush outlined an agenda for peace based U. N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of "land for peace." The talks were organized by Secretary of State James Baker and scheduled for October 1991 in Madrid.

Attendees of the conference included a Jordanian/Palestinian delegation with 14 representatives. Sitting at the negotiating table was an unofficial Palestinian advisory team from the West Bank and Gaza that had been selected by the PLO, the United States, the Soviet Union, Syria, the European Community, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. Observing the proceedings were the United Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Maghreb Union.

For the first time in its history, Israel entered into direct negotiations with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians. A bilateral track and a multilateral track were established. These first bilateral meetings took place in Madrid, in November 1991 which put Israel together with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian delegation to resolve past conflicts in the region, sign peace treaties and for the Palestinians to achieve interim self-rule and final settlement over a five year time frame.

The multilateral negotiations opened in Moscow in January 1992. Issues discussed included water rights, the environment, arms control and regional security, refugees and economic development.

The talks between Israel and Jordan continued for almost two years following the Madrid conference and successfully concluded with the signing of a peace treaty on October 26, 1994.

However, a portion of the tracks stalled. The issue was the lack of authority for the Palestinian delegation to negotiate. Every point Israel raised was referred back to the PLO and to Yasser Arafat. This stalemate became the launch pad for the 1993 series of secret talks in Norway between Israel and the Palestinians, known as the Oslo peace process.

The negotiations began in Oslo on January 1993 with the goal to draft a document of principles for future peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians. The "Declaration of Principles", the foundation of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians was drafted. The document, known as the "Oslo Accords", was signed at a White House ceremony hosted by President Bill Clinton in September 1993, and attended by the two main parties, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Two years later on September 1995, The Oslo Interim Agreement, the second phase, of the "Declaration of Principles" was signed. The agreement called for the redeployment of the Israeli Army from a major portion of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and free elections, permitting the Palestinians to set up the Palestine National Authority as a negotiating partner representing the Palestinians, and as the administrative authority over the Palestinians.

Little came from the Oslo Declaration of Principles. In the summer of 1998, with the U.S. pressuring both sides, especially Israel, signs of executing parts of the agreement surfaced. The sides met at Wye River Plantation in Maryland in October 1998, resulting in the Wye River Memorandum. Israel agreed to carry out a withdrawal from 13% of the territory it occupied, and the Palestinian National Authority agreed to contain terror and eliminate its stockpiled arsenals and weapons. Part of the agreement was implemented, including Israeli withdrawal from some of the territories, and a Palestinian crackdown on militants, but the arms reduction clause and Israeli withdrawal was not fulfilled.

As conflicts increased with the Palestinians, other peace negotiations in the region fall apart. In March, 2000 Syrian President Hafez al-Assad rejects an Israeli offer relayed by President Clinton.

In March 2002, Saudi Arabia enters the peace process with a plan presented at the Arab League summit conference in Beirut, calling for peace with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from all territories since 1967 and the return of Palestinian refugees in return for recognition of Israel. For the remaining part of 2002 through 2007 peace efforts stall and unravel. Highlights during this period include:

  • March 2002, Israel launches operation "Defensive Wall" in the West Bank, retaliating for several suicide bombings, arresting Palestinian leaders and imprisoning Chairman Arafat in the compound in Ramallah. Israeli soldiers surround militants in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. During the operation, about 50 people, including civilians, are killed in the Jenin refugee camp. The UN proposes to investigate, but it is dropped after Israel refuses to cooperate.

  • June 2002: President Bush calls for Israeli withdrawal and insists the Palestinian National Authority must be reformed and its current leaders replaced.

  • Cairo holds a conference for Palestinian groups in January 2003, the first in 20 years. The conference calls for a cease fire offering to Israel, but fails. Five months later at the Aqaba Summit, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), the new Palestinian Prime Minister, and Ariel Sharon promises to stop the violence and end occupation according to the "Road Map"--a detailed schedule of conditions and events that would break the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock and lead to a peace settlement.

  • UN Security Council passes resolution 1515 in November 2003, supporting the roadmap. Later that month, Israeli PM Sharon announces the Disengagement Plan for unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces if the road map fails.

  • Chairman Arafat dies on November 2004.

  • February 2005, Sharon, now Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan meet in Sharm El Sheikh. Abbas and Sharon announce an end to the violence; Israel will release over 900 Palestinian prisoners and withdraw from Palestinian cities. Jordan and Egypt will return ambassadors to Israel. The intifada is over. The following month, the London Conference hosted by Great Britain plan at organizing Palestinian security forces and getting financial backing for the Palestinian Authority. At the Cairo Conference, Palestinian militant groups agree to stop fighting. Hamas and Islamic Jihad will join the PLO. Hamas will participate in May elections for the Palestine Legislative Council.

  • Sharon addresses the United Nations in September 2005 and calls for peace, recognizes Palestinian rights, reasserts Israel's right to a united Jerusalem.

  • January 2006, Sharon suffers massive stroke and is in critical condition. Ehud Olmert becomes Prime Minister of Israel.

  • May 2006, Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli jails issue a document of national unity calling for a state in West Bank and Gaza Strip and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Hamas government rejects the document. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he will hold a referendum on approval of the document if the factions cannot agree. In June, a revised prisoners' document is issued, agreed upon by Hamas and Fatah but not all factions agree, and Abbas decides to hold a referendum.

  • July 2006: Hezbollah terrorists crossed the border with Lebanon and attacked an Israeli patrol. Hezbollah also start rocket attacks on northern Israel. Israel bombs Hezbollah headquarters in Beirut. Hezbollah responds with rocket attacks on Haifa, Tiberias, Safed and other towns in northern Israel. A Hezbollah Iranian supplied missile hits an Israeli missile cruiser off the cost of Beirut. Hezbollah rocket also sink one foreign neutral ship and damages an Egyptian one. G-8 meeting calls for ending the violence, the return of an Israeli soldier and disarming Hezbollah in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and UN Security Council Resolution 1680.

  • A cease fire begins based on UN Security Council Resolution 1701 in August 2006. Four months later, Israelis and Palestinians announce a truce to apply to the Gaza strip. Israeli arrests continue in West bank, as do Palestinian terror attempts. In Gaza, Israel holds to the truce, but rocket fire from Gaza continues.

  • Palestinian Unity Agreement in Mecca meet in February 2007, Hamas and Fatah agree to share power. Hamas officials restate that they will never recognize Israel. The U.S. and Israel insist that the new government must recognize Israel, disarm terrorist groups and agree to end the violence. Later in the month, a trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-American summit with Secretary of State Rice, Ehud Olmert and President Abbas ends with no results.

  • In June 2007, Hamas attacks Fatah in Gaza, driving them out. President Mahmoud Abbas dissolves the unity government, but Prime Minister Haniyeh insists that the government is still in power. A summit in Sharm El Sheikh attended by Egypt, Jordan, Egypt and Palestinians pledges support to the Abbas government, but Egypt calls for reunification with Hamas.

  • Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is appointed in late June as Mideast envoy by the Quartet.

  • July 20, 2007: Over 250 Palestinians prisoners from Israeli prisons are freed in a gesture to President Abbas.

Although responses have been mixed to Mr. Blair's appointment, no one disputes that this new position will be easy. Will his negotiating skills, seen in his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland bring the desired outcome in the Middle East? Will he be able to reinstitute the failed road map or any of the principles from the Oslo talks? As the threat of Iran increases will Mr. Blair invite them to negotiating table? These are a few of the challenges Mr. Blair will face.

Sources: Mideastweb.org, The Christian Science Monitor, The CRS Issue Brief for Congress: The Middle East Peace Talks, Jewish Virtual Library, Israeli - Palestinian ProCon.org, Newsweek.

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