On December 7, 1988, late PLO leader Yasser Arafat made a game-changing statement, announcing that he accepted the existence of the State of Israel and rejected terror. Arafat's comments followed a unilateral Declaration of Independence which proclaimed the State of Palestine a month earlier on November 15.
The PLO decision to pass the declaration included an acceptance of United Nations resolutions 242 and 338, which implied recognition of Israel's right to exist, but did not explicitly do so. Subsequent international criticism led the PLO leader to clarify this point. "This was clear in the resolutions adopted by the Palestine National Council when we said clearly there are two states in Palestine, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state," he told a news conference in Stockholm, where he had engaged in two days of talks with a delegation of five US Jewish intellectuals.
Also in the statement, the PLO "declared its rejection and condemnation of terrorism in all its forms." However, Arafat added that the uprising in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip would continue until a Palestinian state was established, and that he wanted to discuss the future of the region in a special UN-sponsored international conference.
US immigration authorities had turned down Arafat's application for a visa to address a debate on the Middle East at the United Nations in New York, saying he supported terrorism. Therefore, the world body moved the debate to Geneva.
But Arafat's speech at the UN five days later drew criticism. He offered no explicit recognition of Israel - though he did mention the Israeli people by name - and fell short of renouncing terrorism, though he did condemn it. Officials who expected Arafat to use the UN forum for more concrete commitments observed that his speech appeared to fall short of even the statement he issued in Stockholm.
Then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir blasted the speech as "an act of monumental deception" and made clear that Israel would have nothing to do with the PLO, under any circumstances. Meanwhile, the US State Department asserted that the PLO leader had not met conditions set by the US for dialogue. US State Department spokesman Charles Redman stressed that if Arafat met the conditions, the United States was ready for a "substantive dialogue" with the PLO.
"The speech contained some interesting and positive elements," Redman said. "But it continued to be ambiguous on the key issues which must be clearly … recognition of Israel's right to exist, rejection of terrorism in all forms."
A day later on December 14, third party intermediaries scrambled to find the right formula that would be acceptable to the UN, and Arafat clarified his speech in a press conference. This time, Arafat mentioned the right of all parties in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security, including the State of Palestine, Israel, and their neighbors. He further renounced, rather than condemned, terrorism.
And a day after that, on December 15, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 43/177 which acknowledged the PNC's proclamation of the State of Palestine and affirmed the need to enable the Palestinian people to exercise their sovereignty over their territory occupied since 1967. The resolution passed by a vote of 104 to 2, with 36 abstentions. The assembly decided that, effective as of that day, the designation "Palestine" should be used in place of the designation "Palestine Liberation Organization" in the United Nations system, without prejudice to the observer status - which the PLO was granted in 1974 - and functions of the PLO within the United Nations system.
Thus, Arafat achieved another victory for his people at the UN and had significantly shifted his position to a more moderate stance - at least in words. However despite the promise of the statements he had made, the PLO did not change its charters until five years later. In 1993, an exchange of letters between Arafat and late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin sealed the altered position in writing following behind-the-scenes negotiations in Oslo. On September 9, Arafat sent Rabin a letter in which he unequivocally stated that the PLO recognizes Israel's right to exist in peace and security, committed itself to a peaceful resolution of the conflict and renounced the use of terrorism and other acts of violence. Rabin accordingly responded to Arafat, confirming Israel's decision to "recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process." These letters culminated in the Oslo Accords, shaken on by Rabin and Arafat, and signed by then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and his counterpart at the time, Mahmoud Abbas.
These very accords comprise part of the current Israel indignation at now-PA president Abbas's success at the UN General Assembly on Thursday, where his own statehood bid - to grant the Palestinian delegation the upgraded status of non-member observer state - received overwhelming support. The Oslo Accords were the base of subsequent Palestinian-Israeli agreements, which stipulate that neither side would initiate or take any unilateral step regarding the status of the West Bank or Gaza. Israel and the US, two of the nine lone countries that voted against the resolution, maintain that peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations. "The resolution sends a message that the international community is willing to turn a blind eye to peace agreements," Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor told the General Assembly on Thursday night.
Arafat's statehood bid in 1988 did little to bring immediate on-the-ground change for the Palestinian people, however, it was arguably the beginning of serious albeit failed peace efforts. Abbas said on Thursday that the PA's move was aimed at "trying to breathe new life into the negotiations." The coming months will reveal whether the PA, Israeli government and international community will use the symbolic move to jump-start the stalled peace process, or whether as Prosor warned, it will instead push the chances of a peace accord into the distant future. The Israeli reaction thus far, indicates the latter.
Reuters and JTA contributed to this report.