Madrid Conference can inspire new Middle East peace effort

In the 30 years that have elapsed since the 1991 Madrid Conference was opened with great razzmatazz, it has come to be viewed more favorably than it was back in its immediate aftermath, even though it did not end the conflicts between Israel and its neighbors, let alone bring peace.

It was far from being a peace conference in the strictest sense, but rather a one-off, internationally sponsored ceremonial gateway to a series of direct bilateral negotiations between Israel and its immediate neighbors. While this international gathering was co-chaired by US President George H.W.

Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and was widely supported internationally, it led to only one subsequent peace agreement, that between Israel and Jordan. But this tells only part of the Madrid Conference story.

A peace agreement with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon remains elusive. However, that four-day gathering normalized direct relations between Israel and some of its sworn enemies. Unprecedentedly, this was the first time that all the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict had sat at the same table to hold direct negotiations.

It is hard to imagine the Oslo Accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians without this initiative, even if, tragically, those have not culminated in the desired objective of a peace agreement based on a two-state solution and a complete end to all further demands by both sides.

The spectacle of Israeli and Palestinian representatives talking to and acknowledging each other publicly, even if not always in the spirit of reconciliation, was a refreshing novelty and it should be put in context. At the time of the Madrid Conference, only one country in the entire Middle East — Egypt — had signed a peace agreement with Israel and that was 12 years earlier, with no sign of the other regional powers following suit. Worse, President Anwar Sadat, who broke the political deadlock with Israel, paid for signing that peace agreement with Israel with his life, when he was assassinated by radical Islamists two years later.

All things considered, bringing to the same table representatives of all sides that by then had been involved in wars for more than 40 years was no mean feat.

Much of it can be attributed to extremely conducive international conditions and less to the eagerness of those involved in this conflict to make, at that stage, the necessary compromises required for a peace agreement to be reached. If anything, the speeches of some leaders demonstrated that they were not ready to abandon the old formulas and rhetoric, and they used the Madrid Conference as an opportunity to portray each other in the worst possible light.

Nevertheless, this was a time of euphoria and optimism in the immediate post-Cold War period; a time when the Arab-Israeli conflict no longer played a role in the superpower rivalry between Russia and the US, and when both Washington and Moscow were keen to demonstrate that they could cooperate on some of the most intricate and destabilizing issues in world affairs. They wanted to create an opportunity to usher in a new and more cordial global diplomacy, in which worldwide interests might take precedence over parochial ones.

Moreover, it was a euphoric time not only due to the end of the Cold War, but also thanks to the liberation of Kuwait after its brutal invasion and occupation by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This gave the sense of an international community that was capable of working harmoniously against aggression to resolve conflicts. For a brief moment in history, it felt as if the great dream of the UN as expressed in its Charter was alive again, after lying dormant for nearly half a century. Bringing peace to the Middle East could have been the perfect manifestation of this, before we were all to have a rude awakening, here as elsewhere in the world. But at that moment, the Kuwait affair brought together a coalition that only a few years earlier would have been regarded as sheer fantasy and created a momentum of international cooperation that the Madrid Conference epitomized.

It was also a moment for better, but mainly for worse, that due to the grossly miscalculated decision by the leadership of the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to support Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, it was sidelined. Israel was able to demand an alternative representation of the Palestinians, one which had hardly any leadership credentials among the Palestinian people. This established an unacceptable precedent, which was not only morally wrong but also counterproductive to making any progress; it meant that Israel, as the more powerful side in this conflict and with the backing of the international community, could dictate who should represent the Palestinians.

With all due respect to those who represented the Palestinians at the Madrid Conference, it was obvious that the power was with the leadership in Tunisia and Yasser Arafat. At best, the former served as a bridge for later years’ negotiations with the leadership of the PLO, which represents the wider Palestinian community in the Occupied Territories and the diaspora. Even 28 years after the Oslo process, in which Israel engaged directly with the PLO, the compulsive need by the Israeli leadership to decide who is a negotiating partner — and even more obsessively who is not — remains ingrained in the Israeli psyche.

That four-day gathering in 1991 normalized direct relations between Israel and some of its sworn enemies.

Yossi Mekelberg

During the Madrid meetings themselves, the most memorable moments apart from the drama of the occasion itself were the mutual insults between the Israeli and Syrian representatives. Nevertheless, in the years since Madrid, a peace agreement with Jordan was signed and has survived considerable bouts of turbulence; the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians, at least for a short while, were heading in the direction of a two-state solution, though these were later derailed; and Syria and Israel talked peace, as at one point the latter was prepared for an almost complete withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights.

For various reasons that are no fault of the Madrid Conference, peace has not been reached with Syria, Lebanon or, most importantly, with the Palestinians. However, most pertinently in the case of Palestine, this summit 30 years ago demonstrated that, if the international community is determined and speaks with one voice, it can make an unimaginable difference. The case of Palestine is desperate for a repeat of this, and with an added sense of urgency.

  • Yossi Mekelberg

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