negotiating the
oslo peace accords

Connie Bruck’s recent New Yorker article on the Oslo peace process clearly demonstrates the differences between two different methods of conflict negotiation and diplomacy. The method that brought about the agreement was built on personal relationships, understanding interests and finding options for mutual gain. It succeeded in changing long held beliefs in what Palestinians and Israelis could agree to as conditions for peace. Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, however, the process has stalled because of competitive and adversarial views towards what can be gained. Issues of power, distribution and conflict escalation have turned optimistic hopes into tactical moves to maintain the status quo. Even these face-saving positions cannot help to stop the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. The following analysis explores how basic principles can make a significant difference in a negotiation’s success or failure.

Personal Relationships

Human relationships are the foundation of any negotiation. The Oslo process was marked by how well several of the key participants were able to separate the fears and hatred they had of one another, from their ability to form working relationships based on mutual trust and respect. One important example was Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ vision early on to see Yassir Arafat as an ‘equal partner’ in the peace process. As Fisher, Ury and Patton suggest (Getting to Yes, p. 19), Peres felt Arafat had to be dealt with on two levels - not only forge agreements with him on substantive interests, but to develop a working relationship that would make future negotiations worthwhile as well. In doing so, Peres reframed the abstract image of Arafat and the Palestinians from a ‘them,’ into a nation of people with a representative leader. As Peres put it, Arafat had to be ”transformed from the most hated gentleman in (Israel) . . . into a partner we can sit with.”

In some respects, Peres view was much different from the conventional views held by most Israelis about Arafat. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for example, thought little would come from the Oslo peace negotiations at first. Elected in 1992, Rabin was highly regarded for his military experience and rank. His perception of Arafat was shaped by Israel’s precarious relationships with its neighboring Arab countries. Rabin was “pessimistic, cautious, deeply suspicious of the Arabs.” Most Israelis feel threatened from all sides by their neighbors, and as Bruck puts it, “long for security above all else, but feel they will never attain it.” Rabin, however, was also interested in making peace a priority. He had campaigned on the promise he would do everything possible to reach some agreement with the Syrians, Jordanians and the Palestinians during his first year in office. Although Rabin was more cynical and ‘ambivalent’ about what negotiations with the PLO could offer, it was his approval of the final Oslo agreement that gave the Israeli people some confidence in its authority.

One contributing factor was the personal trust Peres and Rabin built up during their private meetings. As fierce rivals for many years at the top levels of Israeli government, they put aside their difference while working on the Oslo accords. Peres said their working together ‘achieved a balance’ between optimism and pessimism. Often, negotiators working as a team can see solutions to a dispute more readily. (Perkins, p. 13) In addition, the predictability and dependability of a working relationship assures that one will respond to the other’s needs and concerns. (Rubin/Levenger p. 29) Peres and Rabin found themselves to be both fully committed to achieving peace and did not put their own interests ahead of the other’s. They reached agreement on a superordinate goal that was more important than any personal differences they may have had. This trust was a significant factor in helping Rabin see the possibilities in recognizing Arafat as a negotiating partner.

Trust was also evident in the way Rabin and Arafat became indispensable to one another in implementing the Oslo I agreement. From their first meeting at the signing of the accord in 1993 to Rabin’s assassination in November of 1995, Rabin and Arafat developed a level of trust that was built on understanding what each leader’s interests were. (McCarthy, p. 62) Although both leaders at times felt the other was not diligent enough enforcing terms of the agreement, this suspicion gradually wore away by 1995, when Rabin felt comfortable with Arafat’s progress in providing security in the occupied territories. Since this was Rabin’s most important interest, by the

time of the signing of Oslo II, both Arafat and Rabin felt they could speak to one another as a partner. After Rabin’s assassination, Arafat felt he lost someone he ‘could do business with.’ Rabin and Arafat, were leaders who could make concessions, but still be respected by their constituencies. Although Peres would continue to uphold Israel’s agreements, Arafat felt Peres did not have the same stature to make the case to the Israeli people.

Trust was also a significant element in the relationship that developed between Uri Savir and Abu Alaa, the primary negotiators of the Oslo accords. Bruck notes their mutual respect and close relationship helped iron out many of the details of the peace agreement. The two were effective because they also developed an understanding of each other’s personality and concerns before they negotiated. Initial periods of civil discourse often help to ‘break the ice’ in negotiations and makes the participants less defensive and more able to identify the interests each party is concerned about. (Yates, p. 145)

At their first meeting, Savir and Alaa spent hours talking about the issue of most concern to all Israelis - the issue of security. Alaa thought Israeli demands for security were always negotiating tricks because of their overwhelming military superiority. Savir tried to explain how Israelis felt vulnerable psychologically - it would always be of primary concern given his country’s and Jewish history. On the opposite side, Savir said Israelis were not cognizant of Palestinian concerns until the intifada of 1987. For Alaa, the oppression of the Palestinian people had it roots back to his father’s time. After this initial debate, the two decided to put their pasts behind them and work towards an agreement. This is an important element of negotiating. By acknowledging and respecting each other’s perspective, they could then look forward to their negotiations as something they could both take part in shaping.

Savir and Alaa were also successful because they were able to work on agreements outside of the normal scrutiny given to diplomatic negotiations. These less official, second channels of communication, are integral to successful negotiation. They let the participants relate on a more personal level, and allow them room to try out new ideas and positions. (Rogers/Ryback p. 92) Savir and Alaa’s ‘pressure cooker relationship and intense collegiality’ blossomed in the more informal surroundings of Oslo. Meeting in secret, far away from world attention, the negotiators could concentrate on the issues without the interference of media as well as their leaders.


One of the difficult problems in negotiation is the negotiator’s incentive to agree to things his constitu- ency would not support. This is referred to as the “principal/agent” problem and can often lead to inefficient and less than optimal outcomes. (Mnookin p. 23) During the Oslo process, for example, Abu Alaa carefully crafted decisions with Uri Savir regarding the amount of territory where Israeli military forces would be withdrawn. Alaa, however, was “more unyielding” towards the issues than Arafat, and tried to conceal things from Arafat in order to improve the Palestinian position. In several instances, Arafat overruled Alaa’s work in private meetings with Peres and Rabin, perhaps as a gesture of increased trust amongst the leaders. Arafat’s concession to remove the explicit percentages of land to be turned over in the treaty schedule would have unfavorable consequences when the Netanyahu government assumed control.

There are principal/agent problems inherent in one’s position as elected leader of a country as well. The ability to speak with authority for one’s constituency is a necessary prerequisite in negotiating agreements. (Rogers/Ryback, p. 92) Rabin confided in his wife the most difficult thing about Oslo was trying to convince himself first, so he could convince his own people. After Rabin’s assassination, Peres’ did not have the military background that insured military support. Peres was also seen more highly outside of Israel than within. Peres’ loss in the Israeli election a few months later would confirm Arafat’s fear that the peace process would stall without Rabin to push it forward.

Arafat’s own concessions in the negotiating process concerned many of his own constituency. Many of his supporters claimed Arafat had given away too much in the negotiations. Arafat’s actions after Oslo I was signed seemed to be a reaction to this lack of support - giving a hate-filled speech in Johannesburg, hiding refugees in the trunk of his car when he reentered Gaza, and placating Hamas rather than cracking down. Arafat tried to achieve a delicate balance between maintaining his improved relationship with Rabin and Peres, while demonstrating to his own people that he had not turned into a pawn of the Israelis.


Personal relationships go a long way in establishing the background needed to discuss the issues that are the base of conflict. The Oslo process, however, focused on several intractable issues that had defied solution for nearly 100 years. Bruck describes the main conflict over establishment of a Palestinian ‘homeland’ in the West Bank, east of Jerusalem. By most theories of conflict negotiation, any efforts towards a peace process would have been handicapped from the start. Religious freedom, fundamental rights of sovereignty, fears of invasion, and long-term oppression were all contained in the issues to be negotiated.

Israel’s primary interest was in Arafat guaranteeing a Palestinian state would not be a threat to Israel’s security. As Uri Savir tried to explain to Abu Alaa, security was a psychological issue - it was beyond any rational measure. Israel’s government, therefore, needed absolute certainty before it would grant police power to the Palestinians. Arafat realized he needed to offer assurances that Palestinian extremists were to be kept in check. Therefore, much of what he finally conceded to were ways to give Israel some control - border crossing guards, police patrols and the pace of military withdrawal.

On the other side, the Palestinians were interested in the living conditions of its people. Forcibly up- rooted and herded away from their homelands, Palestinian negotiators were demanding sovereignty over their communities in East Jerusalem, Hebron and the West Bank. These were positions the official Palestinian negotiators in Washington considered non-negotiable.

What Arafat agreed to in Oslo, however, looked past these positions and focused on the value of his underlying interests. In negotiation, focusing on interests can reveal several possible solutions that may be acceptable to both parties. (Fisher Ury, p. 42) When Peres offered Arafat safe passage back to Gaza as well as promises to negotiate with him on future return of territory, Arafat thought this was the first step towards Palestinian self-rule, his long held goal. Though many of Arafat’s supporters did not approve of the offer without more Israeli concessions, Arafat felt Israel’s willingness for him to take control of Gaza and Jericho was a ‘gesture of faith’ he could not pass up. In addition, Israel allowed Arafat to issue Palestinian passports, currency, and stamps. This may have seemed petty to Israeli negotiators, but they were of great importance to many Palestinians. They were the symbols of nationhood. As long as there was promise of full sovereignty down the line, Arafat was willing to concede a great deal in order to realize his dream.


One reason why the Oslo process was successful was that the situation was ‘ripe’ for change. By 1992, events in the Middle East created an ‘enticing opportunity’ the parties could not pass up. (Pruitt, p. 69) The Gulf War had taken its toll on the Arab states economically, and they were not in any position to give strong aid to the PLO. Politically, the Arab coalition was fragmented, while the PLO’s support of Iraq ostracized them from much of the Arab community. With the end of the Cold War, Soviet backing and arms had also disappeared from the scene. Rabin’s election promise to advance the cause of peace found a receptive audience at home and abroad. More significantly, Peres was concerned with the rise of Islamic extremism. Fundamentalist Islamic groups like Hamas and Hezbollah were beginning to find support among the Palestinians. The alternatives made Arafat seem very attractive as a negotiating partner.


Not only did the leaders sense it was the right time, but the Oslo agreement required each side’s full cooperation to make the negotiations work. This cooperative interdependence was fully realized in the joint police patrols devised to provide security in the treaty areas. Palestinians and Israeli soldiers would be forced to work together for the first time. Initially, the arrangement caused considerable concern. Arafat had tried to neutralize the danger represented by newly freed Palestinian prisoners by hiring them as policemen. As a tactic for Arafat, it was a wise move. He included into the process many who would be willing to plot against its downfall. By giving them a stake in the success of the joint patrols, they brought stability to what could have been a risky process.

The joint patrols turned out to be the most successful part of the treaty. The common task brought Israelis and Palestinians together on a personal level, riding in the same transport, working the same detail. The informal contacts of day to day work provided a connection which had not been available until now. Both sides were also getting what they wanted. After suicide bombings prompted a crackdown on Hamas terrorists, one Palestinian commander agreed fully with the joint action. “It is for our own prestige, our security,” he said. “The Palestinian Authority should control its people.”

Mutual Gains

Finally, the Oslo accords worked because each leader depended on one another to make it work. The Oslo agreement bound Rabin, Peres and Arafat together, in spite of their respective governments. It did so because the agreement was a ‘package deal.’ Certain elements of the accord were distasteful for Rabin and Peres. Other elements did not live up to what Arafat wanted either. The benefits of the full accord, however, were worth more than the costs. For each side there was enough ‘winning’ things to make it palatable and sellable to each leader’s constituency. Although the agreement was less than specific, it suggested a framework with which to continue the process. It fundamentally changed the relationships between the two countries and could only gain momentum with continued discussion. The Oslo process was a successful negotiation that used techniques of personal relationships, understanding interests and mutual gains. It also brought about a momentous change in the history of the Middle East.

Adversarial Negotiation

If the Oslo process embodied great optimism and expectations for lasting peace, the Israeli elections in June of 1996 reversed any hope for continued communication, let alone a settlement. The new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, campaigned against the previous administration’s efforts, returning the focus to more conventional and adversarial tactics of negotiation. The adversarial relationship can be comfortable for negotiators, because it risks little and takes limited effort. It relies on the strength of tactical maneuvers to improve the strength of one’s position, in the hope that the other side realizes its disadvantage and concedes. This technique, however, can be quite ineffective. (Carpenter and Kennedy, p. 19) It was a state of affairs, however, that Netanyahu believed was going to get him a ‘better peace and peace with security.’

On taking office, Netanyahu tried to distance himself from the peace accord, saying the previous gov- ernment had been too lenient on the Palestinians, giving them great concessions for ‘nothing in return.’ Netanyahu also neglected to call or meet with Arafat after the election. This withdrawal from the conflict may have intended to force or dominate the Palestinians into negotiating, but can also be seen as a sign of avoiding the issues. (Rubin/Levenger p. 17)

Netanyahu seemed to reject the previous administration’s case that security and sovereignty were linked. Instead, Netanyahu went on the attack, saying Rabin had entrusted ‘Israel’s security’ to Arafat. The painstaking relationship built up between the two governments was quickly jettisoned in favor of statements in defense of Israel’s own security interest. Netanyahu stated that Arafat would be reduced to ‘a subject, not a partner.’ In fact, the Likud Party had prevented any of its members from dealing with Arafat or the Palestinians, and were unaware of how close the joint police patrols had become. Rather than seeking to understand the situation, the new government tried to ‘leap into battle’ to protect its own positions.


What is evident in Netanyahu’s position towards the peace process, is his reliance on the concept of negotiating ‘power,’ believing this alone would bring the Palestinian situation under control. Demonstrating one’s power often derives from military strength or an unyielding position. (Fisher, p.149) Netanyahu assumes his ‘tough stand’ will be perceived by Palestinians in a specific way Palestinians would realize Israel could not be pushed around, forcing Palestinians to give into Israeli demands for greater security. The message was clear from all levels of the new government. The new foreign minister Dore Gold did not believe in the terms of the Oslo agreement, stating Israel would merely return just ‘one-half acre’ to satisfy the agreement. Cabinet Member Rafael Eitan was more forceful. He believed the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians would bring no compromise. “You have two choices: to win or be wiped out.’

Power, however, can be perceived differently by others. (Lax and Sibenius, p. 62) Abu Alaa succinctly deflated the importance of Israel’s military strength by noting they could not “make war with Palestine.” Palestinians lived amongst them like “a cancer in the Israeli stomach.” Alaa made the claim that Israel’s power was neutralized because its overwhelming military did not force the Palestinians to change their behavior.

Distributive Process

Netanyahu’s underlying interests for the peace process were much different than Peres’ motivations. Bruck observes that Netanyahu was extremely interested in continuing the new economic order brought forth by the Oslo accords. Increased foreign investment and improved relations with neighboring Arab countries had brought economic fortune to the Israeli economy. Netanyahu, however, was also trying to please the groups that helped propel him into office - the settlers living in the West Bank. The settlers were extremists in their own right - ultra-Orthodox, pro-expansion. The religious value they attributed to West Bank lands gave no room for negotiation. To the settlers, this land was their biblical patrimony. It was a fundamental right that could not be given up. Netanyahu, recognizing their demands, tried to forestall implementation of the existing accord. He hoped to reopen the negotiations to implement the interim agreement of joint control of the region permanently. In essence, Netanyahu could not envision how any security arrangement other than full Israeli control could work. In his view, the distribution between the settler’s demands and Palestinian desires for a homeland could not be both accommodated together in the West Bank. With the momentum of the peace process stalled, the status quo became a breeding ground for conflict.

Conflict Spiral

A conflict spiral develops when the forces behind the conflict are unmanaged. (Carpenter and Kennedy, Chap 1, p. 11) Evidence of how quickly an escalating spiral develops was seen in the events following the tunnel opening under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. As discussed above, Netanyahu’s inaction had antagonized Palestinian concerns. Netanyahu’s decision to open the tunnel was taken without regard to their concerns. Naturally, the Palestinians considered the tunnel a violation of their sacred ground. Demonstrations and riots followed. The cycle escalated into violence when Palestinian police commanders refused to intercede, putting at risk the cooperative spirit the joint patrols had developed. The final breakdown occurred in Ramallah, when Palestinian policemen opened fire on Israeli soldiers. In six months, the optimism that surrounded the peace accords had been replaced with a deadly crisis. Both Netanyahu and Arafat were pointing at the other claiming it was their fault. The end result were hundreds killed and wounded, while the survivors continue to live with anxiety, fear and suspicion.

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december 1999