The 1990s brought Israel into a new era. Following the victory of the US and its coalition in the Gulf War, during which Israel had been attacked by Iraqi Scud missiles but did not retaliate, hopes for peace were renewed. In addition, the collapse of the communist Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War led to greater hopes of moving toward a “new world order.”
A historic meeting was convened in October 1991, in Madrid, organized by the US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and attended by the leaders of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian people. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was reluctant to attend, but did so after the US threatened to withhold aid. The Madrid Conference was the first attempt at creating a broad peace in the Mideast region. One of the main benefits for Israel as a result of the conference was the increase in countries which recognized Israel and began, or reinstituted, diplomatic relations. Especially important were diplomatic ties with major powers like China and India, in addition to other Arab countries such as Tunisia and Morocco. Arab boycott of Israeli products decreased as well. Although regional peace was not created, it was the first step toward open dialogue among the countries.
The Oslo Accords represented the first time that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders met face-to-face. Initially, the Israelis, tired from the constant barrage of attacks from the Intifada and the trauma of the Gulf War, were in favor of the accords. Many believed it was time for the country to take risks in order to gain peace. The Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements were officially decided on in Oslo in 1993, and signed in a ground-breaking ceremony on the White House lawn in September. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat signed and shook hands in a photo-op seen around the world. The agreement laid out the framework for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, mainly Israeli troop withdrawal and Palestinian autonomy. Specifically, the Palestinian National Authority was created, which would be responsible for the territory and people under its control, and the accords also called for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from parts of Gaza and the West Bank.
The agreement was deliberately vague. The consensus was that this would be an interim plan until a more concrete plan could be finalized within the next five years. Disputed issues such as Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, security, and borders were carefully left aside in the 1993 accords. In a turning point in Israeli-Palestinian relations, each side signed a Letter of Mutual Recognition. Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and the PLO recognized the right of Israel to exist, and renounced terrorism. The two sides also agreed to establish a cooperation committee, which would work together on issues such as water, finance, industry, and communication.
The reaction to the accords was mixed. The left-wing Israeli society generally supported them, while the right-wing did not. Many felt that this was another manifestation of Arafat’s Ten Point Plan, a peace plan which the Israelis viewed as a ruse in order for the PLO to continue attacking Israel. Israel did not build new settlements during this time, but did continue to enlarge existing communities in Gaza and the West Bank (which was considered by both sides as one area.) The Palestinians were divided as well. Fatah, the group led by Arafat which dealt with the negotiations, was in favor of the accords, but many of the more militant Arab groups were not. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberations of Palestine did not support the agreement, because it contradicted their basic, fundamental belief that Israel does not have a right to exist. The peace accords, paradoxically, only served to increase attacks on Israeli citizens, mostly from the terrorist groups which opposed the peace process. The attacks led to waning support in Israel for the accords, and for the peace process in general.
In February 1994, an extremist Israeli, follower of the fundamentalist Kach movement, entered the Cave of the Patriarchs and opened fire, killing twenty-five Muslim Palestinians worshipping inside. Attcker Baruch Goldstein was killed in the attack, and the Israeli government quickly condemned the brutal murders. The Kach political movement was outlawed from Israeli politics. Though Goldstein gave no stated motivation for the attack, many said that in his capacity as head of the local emergency medical team, he had seen many of his friends murdered at the hands of the Palestinians and wanted to put an end to the peace process.
Despite the conflict and violence, the suicide bombs and retaliation, the peace process continued. In 1994, Israel and Jordan officially ended the state of war that had existed for over forty years, and the two countries signed a peace treaty. Also in 1994, the Palestinians were granted the right to self-government in Jericho and the Gaza Strip. Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize. In September 1995, the agreement known as “Oslo II” was signed. The agreement dealt with the delicate issue of the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO was officially allowed to relocate to Gaza and the West Bank, and autonomy was granted to the Palestinians living there. Again, the PLO agreed to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and end terror attacks. And again, Hamas opposed to the agreement, stepping up its suicide attacks against Israel. In November, 1995, Yitzhak Rabin, who had been at the helm of the peace process, was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli, as Rabin finished giving a speech in Tel Aviv in favor of the Oslo Accords. Shimon Peres succeeded him as prime minister.