On October 23, 1998, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and then-Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat signed a land-for-peace agreement known as the Wye River Memorandum, following a 21-hour session mediated by then-US president Bill Clinton. Also present was Jordan’s King Hussein, after having assisted in the negotiations near Wye River, Maryland.
The memorandum, based on the 1995 Interim Agreement signed by late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat, provided a detailed timeline of each side's obligations. All measures were scheduled to be completed by January 29, 1999, after which, the two sides would resume accelerated final status negotiations, aspiring to reach an agreement by May, 1999.
However, due to obstacles and disagreements between the two sides, only a fraction of the steps were actually taken.
Israel's main commitment was to redeploy from the West Bank. Altogether, Israel was to transfer 13 percent of West Bank land to either full or partial Palestinian control. Additionally, Israel was to transfer 14.2% of land under joint Israeli-Palestinian control into full Palestinian control. The transfers were to be conducted in three separate phases, once Israel was satisfied that the Palestinians had fulfilled their part of the bargain.
Israel committed to releasing 750 Palestinian prisoners. This part of the deal was the result of a "gentleman's agreement” that later became a sticking point; the Palestinians expected Israel to release 750 security prisoners, whom they labelled political prisoners, while Israel wanted to release a combination of security and criminal prisoners.
Palestinian obligations included a variety of measures to help safeguard Israel's security, including: plans to fight terror; reducing illegal weapons; decreasing the number of Palestinian policemen; and seeking to eliminate sections of the Palestinian Charter calling for Israel's destruction.
Furthermore, the Palestinians were to transfer a group of 34 terror suspects to Israel. Later it was agreed that the PA would instead arrest and jail these suspects in three phases. The memorandum also stated that neither side would initiate or take unilateral steps regarding the West Bank or Gaza Strip’s final status, another point of major contention in the months following the agreement.
Netanyahu also brought the battle for Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard's release from American prison into the negotiations. Clinton rejected the demand to release Pollard, but pledged to "review the matter seriously," while giving "no commitment as to the outcome of this review." Fourteen years on, the US position on the matter remains much the same.
Following the signing of the Wye Memorandum, the prime minister said the agreement benefited both sides and left him "brimming with some confidence" that Israel and the Palestinians could reach a final accord, though "I guarantee you it will not be easy."
Clinton praised Netanyahu for "having stood so firmly" on behalf of Israel's security and Arafat for "tenaciously defending the interests of his people."
Both sides implemented stage one. Palestinian moves included arresting wanted fugitives, issuing a decree regarding illegal weapons and issuing an anti-incitement order. Additionally, the PLO Executive Committee backed the annulment of clauses in the Palestinian charter that called for Israel's destruction.
Satisfied the PA had upheld its side of the agreement, Israel transferred 2% of the West Bank - some 44 square miles - from sole Israeli control to joint PA control. Israel also handed over 7.1% of land in the region to sole Palestinian control. Most of the redeployment was carried out near Jenin.
Israel also carried out a prisoner release, which led the PA to complain that 150 of the 250 people prisoners were common criminals and that the Wye agreement stated all should be political prisoners.
"We did not seek US President Clinton's guarantees in order to secure the release of car thieves," MK Ahmed Tibi, an adviser to Arafat at the time, told Israel Radio. Netanyahu denied that he had violated the Wye agreement, a position which was upheld by a US Embassy spokesman.
Less than a month later, however, the accord broke down as Netanyahu suspended West Bank troop withdrawals citing Arafat's threat to declare independence, in breach of the clause stating neither side would initiate moves regarding the final status of the territories.
The Palestinians had begun fulfilling their commitments in the next stage but Israel claimed they had not properly fulfilled their obligations. Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of conducting a "campaign of incitement," falsely charging the Israelis with violating the prisoner clause, and inciting violence and riots, which led to the near-lynching of an Israeli soldier. Netanyahu met Clinton and vowed he would not cede another inch of West Bank land until the PA renounced plans to unilaterally declare statehood in May.
Netanyahu was facing discontent from both the Left and Right; the former was disgruntled over the slow progress made in the peace process, while the right opposed territorial concessions the prime minister had agreed to. In January 1999, early elections were called in Israel due to difficulties in passing the state budget, sealing the freeze on the accords, which were subsequently suspended for 10 months.
After winning the 1999 elections, new prime minister Ehud Barak pledged to resume implementing the Wye accords. Barak and Arafat succeeded in moving forward, and on September 4, they signed a new memorandum at Sharm e-Sheikh, establishing a new timetable for measures agreed upon at Wye, as well as for final status talks. Ten months on, in July 2000, the two men met at Camp David for final status negotiations mediated by Clinton. While both sides had taken significant steps, at crunch time, they ultimately failed at "bridging the gaps" on issues at the heart of the conflict. Each side blamed the other for the breakdown of the talks.
Just two months later, the Second Intifada broke out, and with failed peace talks and the escalation of violence, the Israeli public lost faith in the peace process and swung to the right, voting in then-Likud leader Ariel Sharon in the 2001 elections.
Since Camp David there have been several attempts to reignite the peace process. However, recent years have seen a standstill in negotiations. And as in his first term, Netanyahu is once again staving off Palestinian efforts to unilaterally achieve statehood, as well as calling early elections citing budgetary issues. Meanwhile, what remains of the Israeli peace camp waits with bated breath to discover what the upcoming elections will signify for the dormant Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
JTA and material from The Jerusalem Post archives contributed to this report.