THE WAY TO PEACE EMERGED AT MADRID: A DECADE SINCE THE 1991 MADRID CONFERENCE (JCPA-JERUSALEM CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS) No. 472 Jerusalem Letter / Viewpoints 02/15/03)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
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The Successes of MadridAt the opening of the Madrid Conference on October 30, 1991,
President George Bush set forth the principles to advance the Madrid
The October 1991 Madrid Peace Conference represented a breakthrough
in relations between the State of Israel and the Arab world. For the
first time, Israel engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with
all its immediate neighbors, and not just with Egypt, with whom
Israel had signed a peace treaty in 1979. These talks were between
the political leaders of the region, unlike the armistice discussions
that Israel undertook in the late 1940s and 1950s. Madrid also
launched a multilateral process that brought Israeli diplomats into
contact with representatives of Arab states from North Africa and the
The Madrid process sought to take into account the aspirations of the
parties, their security requirements, their readiness for mutual
reconciliation, and, most of all, their reciprocal need to
compromise. It also institutionalized regular contact between Israel
and the Arab states that created bridges for eventual understandings
in the future.
More importantly, it created the framework for direct negotiations
and, thereby, launched the Middle East peace process. Such regular
lines of communication were the best guarantee for regional stability
and the avoidance of miscalculation in the future. Unfortunately, for
now the successes of Madrid have been swept away by the collapse of
the Oslo process. But Madrid´s careful approach should be recalled
and even re-established in the future, taking into account the new
conditions that have arisen in the Middle East.
Preparing for Madrid
The diplomatic arena was active before the convening of the Madrid
Conference but yielded no concrete results. The main point of
contention was over the composition of the Palestinian delegation
that would negotiate with Israel, against the backdrop of the end of
the first "intifada."
The diplomatic discussions before Madrid focused on the content of
procedure and the procedure of content. Every procedural concession
was viewed by both sides to imply a concession in substance. Israel
demanded exclusion from the Palestinian delegation of PLO
representatives, Arabs from east Jerusalem, and Palestinian exiles.
Jerusalem, Washington, and Cairo dealt with this problem, and the
argument extended to the Israeli government, resulting in the Labor
party leaving the coalition.
The U.S., for its part -- particularly Secretary of State George
Shultz by way of interlocutors -- acted to remove from the PLO its
tiger´s stripes and portray it as a body that no longer carried the
weapon of terror to advance the peace process. Indeed, it was during
the final days of the Reagan administration, in December 1988, that
the U.S. formally opened a dialogue with the PLO after Yasser Arafat
announced his renunciation of violence and accepted UN Security
Council Resolutions 242 and 338. This happened while opinion was
growing in Israel that the PLO was losing its grip on the territories
and a new local leadership was emerging that was not dependent on the
PLO and would be free of its 1964 covenant calling for Israel´s
This pre-Madrid diplomatic activity had trouble rising above the
content of procedure. Moreover, by May 1990, the U.S. was compelled
to cut off its dialogue with the PLO, after one of its constituent
organizations, the Iraqi-based Palestinian Liberation Front, launched
an attack on Israeli beaches from the sea.
The Vision of a Comprehensive Peace
All these efforts were missing a vision -- and moved further and
further away from a vision -- of what might be beyond the procedural
disputes: a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and the
Palestinians and between Israel and the Arab states. In order to
create momentum and break the procedural deadlocks of the pre-Madrid
period, a more far-sighted approach was needed which had the full
potential to bring the entire Middle East to a gradual resolution of
the Arab-Israeli conflict and the creation of a stable peace.
After the outbreak of the intifada in December 1987, it had become
increasingly accepted to define the Arab-Israel conflict as an
Israeli-Palestinian dispute alone. After all, most observers
witnessed the drama of the Palestinian clash with Israel on their
televisions; network camera crews enjoyed free access to Khan Yunis
or Ramallah, but not to the pictures that defined the wider Arab-
Israel conflict: Iraqi missile preparations, Syrian armored
maneuvers, and Hizbullah training camps in Lebanon. Diplomatic
initiatives naturally followed this Palestinian-centered definition
of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- the wider issues that constituted the
real threats to Israel have unfortunately been ignored.
A new initiative to correct this diplomatic myopia came from papers
that I prepared in the Foreign Ministry during the period when David
Levy served as its minister. At his initiative, the Foreign Ministry
developed ideas for combining progress on the Palestinian track with
recognition and normalization in relations between Israel and the
The essence of this diplomatic approach was to develop a two-track
peace process in which progress on the Palestinian front would
correspond to progress in relations with the Arab states. The two-
track process was supposed to be wrapped in a third track -- the
multilateral track -- whose basis was a vision of regional
development and finding solutions to major problems (arms control,
ecology, water, etc.) that accompany the path to peace. The basic
idea was to pursue a full regional peace in order for Israel to avoid
becoming bogged-down in the Palestinian track alone, with no change
in its relations with the Arab world.
In the Aftermath of the Gulf War
The full diplomatic initiative was presented to Secretary of State
James Baker and his people by Foreign Minister Levy and myself in a
series of conversations that, in retrospect, became absorbed into
American thinking. This occurred before the Americans launched their
own initiative. At the end of the Gulf War, Baker skillfully used the
momentum from the formation of an international coalition that
included Arab states to start up the peace process on a new basis.
The status of the U.S. after the Gulf War, now as the sole
superpower, with determined leadership in the person of Baker,
brought a new opportunity to the Middle East. The new global and
regional historic setting for a breakthrough was evident first and
foremost in the decline and eventual fall of the Soviet Union. This
signaled the collapse of support for radicalism in the region and
rejectionism of the peace process. The exhaustion of the peoples of
the region from war, coupled with loss of military and economic
maneuvering room by the Arab states, brought recognition that it was
time for the peace process to set out on its way. Baker requested
from the beginning that the Gulf War coalition be transformed into a
peace coalition -- of which the Madrid Conference was a natural
Baker advanced the initiative through an intensive burst of shuttle
diplomacy, aggressive and systematic negotiations, grappling with
doubts and resistance, marshalling the few who supported this path in
Israel, and with a panoply of guarantees, formulations, and formulas.
Slowly, the U.S. created conditions for the convening of a conference
designed to help the sides reach a lasting peace through direct
negotiations both between Israel and the Palestinians and between
Israel and the Arab states. These tracks were based on UN Security
Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and were in conjunction with
multilateral negotiations designed to promote regional development
and solve regional problems.
The Principles of Madrid
Negotiations in the Madrid framework were directed toward peace
agreements; diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties; and investment
in development and tourism.
Peace will only be achieved through direct negotiations based on
give-and-take and territorial compromise.
Peace cannot be imposed -- it can only come from within the
The process will be two-tracked and the multilateral element will
The negotiations are supposed to allow the Palestinian people to
control their lives and destiny, and, in parallel, ensure the
security and recognition of Israel.
Peace must be based on fairness toward Israel, giving Israel a
chance to demonstrate its willingness to establish relations with its
Palestinian neighbors on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation.
President Bush noted that the U.S. would refrain from defining
the meaning of a stable settlement in the Middle East or final
borders -- but that these borders must promote security and fair
Prior to Madrid, Israel carefully negotiated a "letter of assurances"
from the United States in order to protect its vital interests in any
upcoming negotiations. This careful component of pre-Madrid diplomacy
was not replicated by those who initiated the later Oslo path.
A New Era of Normalization
The Madrid Peace Conference and the peace process it initiated --
which was conducted with ups and downs until "Oslo" -- created a new
reality in the Middle East. In reality, a new light shined on the
Middle East and for the first time the region came closer to the
definition of a "New Middle East." "New" in this sense meant that the
preoccupation with the details of the Palestinian dilemma was
replaced by negotiations between Israel and Jordan, the Palestinians,
and the Arab world generally in the widest sense.
The multilateral dimension created hope and a sense of achievable
goals that could be reached through determined effort. The region was
bursting with hope and ideas for giant projects for the benefit of
all its peoples. The dialogue between Israel -- and Israelis -- with
representatives of all Arab states accelerated and became commonplace.
The spirit of normalization reigned over everything -- despite
difficulties, despite the tough diplomatic positions of our
negotiating partners. Israelis were received as desired guests in
most Arab capitals. In addition, Madrid strengthened Israel´s
international position beyond recognition. Diplomatic relations were
established or restored between Israel and the Soviet Union, China,
and India. Relations were established at different levels of intimacy
and cooperation with many Arab countries. The vision of a
comprehensive peace seemed to be approaching, even if the road to it
was long, gradual, not without setbacks, and fraught with difficult
Madrid´s participants knew from the beginning that even if the
journey down this road had begun, there were no shortcuts to peace.
We knew that the Madrid Conference was the starting point of a long
road that, on the horizon, would lead to the squaring of circles and
the eventual bridging of presently polarized positions in order to
forge a comprehensive peace.
Oslo Derails the Comprehensive Track
The Oslo agreement, to a great degree, returned the process to
another track, one that placed the Palestinian aspect at the
forefront at the expense of the general Arab-Israeli and multilateral
tracks. With time, the momentum of normalization that accompanied the
Madrid process weakened and then disappeared.
It was noteworthy that, as Israeli negotiators continued to implement
Oslo with the September 1995 Interim Agreement, the 1997 Hebron
Protocol, and the 1998 Wye Agreement, the U.S. and Israel failed to
generate new parallel breakthroughs between Israel and the Arab
world. Israel did not open up new offices in the Gulf region, for
example, beyond Qatar and Oman, in Kuwait, Bahrain, or in the UAE.
Anti-Israel diplomatic activity continued at the United Nations and
in international organizations. The multilateral initiatives begun at
Madrid were undermined, withered, and reached a stalemate.
The architects of Oslo who led the negotiations at Camp David will no
doubt be intellectually honest enough to note that it would have been
better to insist on the spirit of normalization to create an
atmosphere for making peace, such as was employed in the Helsinki
Final Act and other well-known historic compromises.
A Code of Conduct for Negotiations
Today, as well, those who want peace and are ready for territorial
compromise will work toward normalization, and economic, scientific,
and medical cooperation. They will also push for joint projects that
promote tolerance and mutual respect and that adopt an
internationally supervised behavioral code prohibiting incitement,
and advancing a peaceful settlement. They will also work to renew the
multilateral track in the Madrid framework.
In retrospect, one of the shortcomings of the Oslo period was the
absence of this sort of a "code of conduct" or set of rules governing
the negotiating process. Clearly, it is unacceptable that violence be
permitted to accompany any negotiation process, whether direct
violence or violence by proxy, like Syria´s use of Hizbullah.
Moreover, it is unacceptable that Israel and its neighbors decide to
resolve their differences bilaterally, while at the same time Arab
states initiate resolutions in the UN General Assembly that prejudge
the outcome of those very same negotiations. A code of conduct
addressing these issues should be a part of any negotiating process
in the future.
The slow train that started out from Madrid made sense. The peace
process was carefully structured. It allowed the parties to stop
along the way to verify whether its engine was operating correctly
and to check the worthiness of the tracks down the line. This train
was exchanged for the fast train of Oslo, that barreled ahead without
sufficient attention to blockages and broken tracks along the way. In
my view, the slow train was preferable and would more reliably have
reached the destination, while the fast train tended to careen off
the tracks. At present, the Oslo train has reached a dead-end. When
the negotiations continue, it behooves Israel to insist that many of
the principles of Madrid be revived, and to work to restore the
atmosphere of great hope that this process brought on its wings.
* * *
Eytan Bentsur is a former Director General of the Foreign Ministry
and is the author of Making Peace. Today he is a special advisor to
the American company Patco. (JCPA.ORG 02/15/03)
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