What led to the 1993 Oslo peace negotiations?
Following the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, bilateral talks began in Washington between Israel and a non-PLO delegation, made up solely of Palestinians from the occupied territories. These formal negotiations, the Madrid “bilateral track”, stalled and basically went in circles without results or much hope of progress. The problem was that Faisal Husseini, the West Bank leader, and his delegation were a charade that lacked authority to negotiate. Every point that Israel raised had to be referred back to the PLO leadership in Tunis, eventually to Yasser Arafat.
In mid-1992, Dr. Yossi Beilin, Israel's deputy foreign minister and peace advocate, joined with Terje Larsen, a Norwegian social scientist and head of a major European peace research institute that was conducting a study of Palestinian living conditions, to initiate a series of informal, secret talks between two Israeli academics and three senior PLO officials. The talks began in Oslo, Norway on January 20, 1993 with the objective to draft an informal document of basic principles for future peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.
In Norway the Palestinians -- especially Abu Ala, their senior representative -- advanced some surprisingly flexible positions, far more practical than the legalistic tangles created in Washington. There were two key elements: a pragmatic progression from easier to more difficult issues, allowing for the development of trust, and Palestinian-Israeli cooperation, mainly in the economic field. The contrast between Washington and Oslo suggested that Yasser Arafat was sending Israel a definite message: the Washington talks, where the PLO was not represented, would grind on endlessly, but in Oslo, where the PLO was officially represented, compromise was possible.
The secret back channel Oslo meetings, upgraded to include senior Israeli diplomats and Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst, worked out the "Declaration of Principles", the foundation of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, while the Washington talks went on as a public cover. The document, known as the "Oslo Accords", was signed in an historic Washington ceremony hosted by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1993, during which PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin grasped hands in an uneasy handshake.