The Madrid Conference

The process and product of meetings between Israel and her Arab neighbors from 1991 to 1993.

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The following article is reprinted from A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Times published by Alfred A. Knopf.
 
In the late winter of 1991, it was [United States] Secretary of State James Baker's idée fixe to -sustain the diplomatic momentum that had produced the recent Gulf military victory. His intention was to exploit Arab and Israeli gratitude by maneuvering both sides into negotiations that would resolve their own historic impasse. Beginning in March 1991,therefore, Baker launched a series of whirlwind visits to the Middle East.
 
Remarkably, under his courteous persistence, the Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian governments all agreed to participate in an international conference. So, in principle, did the Israelis. Shamir had anticipated that the Syrians would torpedo the conference proposal, thereby letting him off the hook. But if Hafez al Assad had unexpectedly accepted the American offer, Shamir for his part dared not risk open confrontation with Washington, and a possibly indefinite postponement of loan guarantees.
 
Nevertheless, procedural issues remained to be "clarified" between Shamir and Baker. Some were disposed of early on. Both men swiftly agreed that the conclave would be held under Soviet American co-chairmanship, rather than that of the United Nations. Even this narrowly circumscribed format would serve essentially as an umbrella for direct negotiations between "regional committees. " The latter would consist of Israel and each separate Arab delegation. The single exception would be the Palestinian delegation; it would be subsumed in that of the Jordanians, and, at that, would not include PLO members.
 
madrid conferenceNevertheless, throughout the spring and summer of 1991, Shamir continued to place his own interpretation on both the "atmospherics" and the details of the conference. He rejected Baker's persistent appeal for a moratorium on Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Under no circumstances, either, could Arabs from East Jerusalem participate as members of the Palestinian delegation. The prime minister had never budged on these issues, and was not about to now. Finally, in August, Baker conceded both points. Shamir then won cabinet approval for participation.
 
The selected venue was Madrid. Eager to display Spain's bona fides as an once historic fount of both Islamic and Jewish culture, its government had offered every assurance of security and comfort. And thus it was, on November 1, 1991, that delegations from the Soviet Union (by then rapidly in the process of dissolution), the United States, Jordan Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel gathered in the Palacio Parcen, an elegant, eighteenth century structure that functioned currently as the Spanish ministry of justice. Bush and Gorbachev had flown in to launch the conclave, and in their opening remarks each expressed the usual pious hopes for Middle Eastern peace.
 
The chiefs of delegations then rose to make their opening statements. Farouq al-Shar’a, the Syrian foreign minister, was harsh and accusatory, demanding that Israel commit itself in advance to withdrawal from the entirety of the occupied Golan. The Lebanese chairman similarly demanded Israeli withdrawal from its “security zone” on Lebanese territory. By contrast, the Palestinian spokesman, Haidar al-Shafti, a Gaza physician, appeared the soul of moderation. Acknowledging the reality of two nations coveting the same land, Shafi now belatedly accepted the language of the original Camp David accords, with their concept of negotiations for an initial, transitional stage of self government. For the moment, too, he did not press the time honored demand for a return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees, only for those displaced by the 1967 war. Manifestly chastened by Israel's staying power and the defeat of Arab extremism in the recent Gulf conflict, the Palestinians in effect were prepared to compromise.
 
Were the Israelis? Yitzchak Shamir, who personally led his country's sizable contingent, might easily have scuttled the conference at the outset. Yet the prime minister’s opening address was unexpectedly low key. This time he refrained from elaborating upon his nation's historic attachment to Judea and Samaria. Neither did he make Jewish settlements a nonnegotiable issue. Rather, by stating only that it would be "regrettable" to focus negotiations "exclusively on territory,” Shamir suggested that talks on Palestine be linked to other issues—for example, the existential question of Israel's legitimacy. By sitting across from Haidar Abd al Shafi, too, the prime minister clearly accepted the equal status of the Palestinians.
 
Afterward, the conclave adopted the format that had been refined over Baker's earlier weeks of painstaking negotiations. Its venue was shifted from Madrid to Washington. There, in the State Department’s conference rooms, Arabs and Israelis conferred on a face-to face basis: one Israeli delegation sitting with its Lebanese counterpart; another with the Syrians; a third with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. It was the negotiation procedure devised for this third contingent, however, that proved exceptionally complex. Agreement had been reached that no “card-carrying” Fatah or other PLO member would be accepted as a member of the Palestinian group. Neither would any resident of East Jerusalem. Thus, Feisal al Husseini, a Jerusalemite who arrived in Madrid with the Palestinians, and who remained in continual touch with PLO headquarters in Tunis by telephone, was obliged to maintain the facade of an "adviser." Spokesmanship for the Palestinians devolved instead on Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, an eloquent, American-educated professor of English literature at BirZeit University, who qualified simply because she lived in Ramallah, outside Jerusalem. Yet the Israelis refused even to sit down with these Palestinians independently of the latter’s Jordanian colleagues. Not until the third round of bilateral meetings, in mid-January 1992, did both sided attempt a convoluted formula under which the Israelis would negotiate essentially Israeli-Jordanian issues with a counterpart delegation comprised of nine Jordanians and two Palestinians. On issues relating essentially to the West Bank and Gaza, the Arab delegation would be restructured to consist of ten Palestinians and two Jordanians..
 
It was in this uneven fashion, then, that separate bilateral negotiations--Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian  continued in Washington, round af¬ter round, from December 1991 through all of 1992 and well into the spring and summer of 1993. Over the months, a certain intermittent progress was achieved on procedural issues, and occasionally even on substantive matters. Thus, on an "interim" basis, the Jordanians were prepared to address such contentious problems as water, energy, environment, refugee resettlement, and arms control. The Lebanese, although pressing for Israeli withdrawal from the violence-prone "security zone," would not disguise the urgency of their hope for permanent, mutually ensured peace.
 
Neither was it an insurmountable shock that the Syrians remained the most obdurate and abrasive of the Arab interlocutors. In round after round, month after month, their delegation pressed for advance Israeli commitment to full and total withdrawal from the Golan plateau. For the Shamir government, it was a nonstarter; the Golan was part of Israel. Even the successor Rabin cabinet initially refused commitment on Golan issue. In later months, however, the Israelis intimated that they were prepared to bend, conceding that occupation of the Golan buffer was perhaps not entirely critical in an age of missile warfare, that partial evacuation and demilitarization at least were negotiable options. Only then did the Syrians acknowledge the desideratum of full peace, rather than mere nonbelligerency, as a legitimate end product, together with "mutual security" arrangements.
 
In Madrid, it was the Palestinian connection that had appeared to be the most promising. But in Washington, ironically, once the procedural issue of separate delegations was resolved, an impasse soon developed on matters of substance (although excellent progress was made with the Jordanians). From the outset, the Palestinians equated the concept of an "interim" self government with a full legislative assembly, to be elected by inhabitants of all occupied territories, including Jerusalem. The Shamir government, and later the Rabin government, rejected the scenario even as a basis for negotiation. Although the Palestinians eventually softened their position, accepting the format of administrative council rather than a legislature, no movement seemed possible on the scope of the council's authority, and assuredly not on the inclusion of Jerusalem. By the summer of 1993, the eleven intermittent Madrid rounds (which of course had become the Washington rounds) had ground to stalemate.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.