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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Way to Peace Emerged at Madrid: A Decade Since the 1991 Madrid Conference

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Peace Process
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 472   3 Adar 5762 / 15 February 2002

The Successes of 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 Persian Gulf.

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 elimination.

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 Arab states.

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 product.

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

At the opening of the Madrid Conference on October 30, 1991, President George Bush set forth the principles to advance the Madrid process:

  • 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 region.
  • The process will be two-tracked and the multilateral element will follow.
  • 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 diplomatic arrangements.

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 negotiations.

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.

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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.