Oslo at 20: Discord over the accord

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, shaking hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, with U.S. President Bill Clinton in the center at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony, Sept. 13, 1993. (Vince Musi / The White House)

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, shaking hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, with U.S. President Bill Clinton in the center at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony, Sept. 13, 1993. (Vince Musi / The White House)

As we mark the 20th anniversary this month of the Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, there has been an outpouring of punditry vigorously debating the agreement’s legacy. A look through the JTA Archive reminds us that back in September 1993, there was also plenty of discord over the accord.

In the days leading up to the historic Sept. 13 signing ceremony on the White House lawn, massive rallies were held in Israel both for and against the peace agreement. Just as Israelis were split by the accord, so were Palestinians. (The killings of four Israelis by Palestinians in the weekend before the signing didn’t help allay Israeli concerns.)

Despite all the anxieties and disagreements, the historic Rabin-Arafat handshake unleashed new hopes, opening previously closed doors for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. PLO leader Yasser Arafat went from being a pariah in Washington to making the rounds in the nation’s capital. And Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on his way back to Israel, made a surprise stop in Morocco, where he had an official meeting with the moderate Arab country’s king.

But upon returning home, Rabin was immediately confronted with a political landscape marked by deep divisions over the accord he had just signed. Officials from the opposition Likud party were conspicuously absent from the airport ceremony welcoming Rabin back to Israel. And when the accord was submitted to the Knesset, it was ratified with the support of only a slim majority of the 120-member body: 61 members voting in favor, 50 opposed, eight abstentions and one member absent. (Arafat, JTA noted, opposed calls to convene the Palestinian National Council to discuss the accord, reportedly fearing he would not have the necessary majority.)

JTA also took note of the responses of American Jews to the dramatic developments. Many Jewish communal leaders, JTA reported, greeted the prospect of an agreement with a degree of caution:

A central factor in the lukewarm reaction is that the emerging Israeli-PLO entente flies in the face of what American Jews have been told for decades by Israeli governments, and have passed on in turn to the American public.

They were told that the PLO could not be a partner for peace, that the territories are vital for Israel’s security and that a Palestinian state is a grave threat to Israel’s security.

Later in the month, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with American Jewish leaders to try to sell them on the accord, with apparently mixed results. He managed to offend some Orthodox leaders, many of whom were already skeptical of the accord.

Beyond the often heated debates, there was a broad sense that things would not be as they had been. The Middle East,  said Israeli President Ezer Weizman, “will never be the same again.”

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