The Madrid Conference was hosted by the government of Spain and co-sponsored by the USA and the USSR. It convened on October 30, 1991 and lasted for three days. It was an early attempt by the international community to start a peace process through negotiations involving Israel and the Palestinians as well as Arab countries including Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. It was the last conference held with both the USSR and US present; the USSR collapsed later that year in December 1991.
In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, US President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker formulated the framework of objectives, and together with the Soviet Union extended a letter of invitation, dated October 30, 1991 to Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians.
Pre-conference U.S. diplomacy
As early as on May 22, 1989, Secretary of State Baker had told an AIPAC audience, that Israel should abandon its expansionist policies; this remark took many as a signal that the pro-Israel Reagan years were over. After the Gulf War on March 6, 1991, President Bush addressed Congress in a speech often cited as the Bush administration’s principal policy statement on the new order in the Middle East following the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In addition to maintaining a permanent U.S. naval presence in the Gulf, providing funds for Middle East development, and instituting safeguards against the spread of unconventional weapons, Michael Oren notes “The centerpiece of his program, however, was the achievement of an Arab-Israeli treaty based on the territory-for-peace principle and the fulfillment of Palestinian rights.” As a first step Bush announced his intention to reconvene the international peace conference in Madrid.
The administration of Bush Sr. believed there was a window of opportunity to use the political capital generated by the U.S. victory to revitalize the Arab-Israeli peace process. This peace initiative focused on convening a multi-party international conference that would then break into separate, bilateral and multilateral negotiating tracks. Although ‘check-book diplomacy’ had been used in the past to move the peace process, as at the Camp David Accords, President Bush and Secretary Baker felt the coalition victory and increased U.S. prestige would itself induce a new Arab-Israeli dialogue, but also because their diplomatic initiative focused on process and procedure rather than on specific agreements and concessions. From Washington’s perspective, economic inducements would not be necessary, but in May, these entered the process with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s request for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees, to help absorb immigrants on humanitarian grounds. This request however, added a new dimension to U.S. diplomacy and sparked a political showdown between Shamir’s Likud government and the Bush administration.
Secretary Baker made frequent shuttle trips to the region between March and October 1991 in an attempt to find a procedural formula acceptable to all sides. He did not have an easy time finding the right formula to convene the conference, particularly on the issue of Palestinian representation. In light of Shamir’s pro-settlement policy, Palestinians and many Arab governments viewed the request for Israeli loan guarantees as a test of America’s credibility as mediator. In addition to Arab opposition, the Bush administration had its own problems with the request, because there was residual ill-will following Israel’s refusal to verify whether the previous (October 1990) $400 million loan guarantee was used for settlement expansion; the administration did not see populating settlements as a humanitarian issue.
Throughout the run-up to the Madrid conference, Israel’s loan guarantee request remained a sore point. By early September 1991, the Administration asked Congress for a 120-day delay on the loan guarantees. This postponement was seen as a way to get to Madrid, to buy time, and to soften the domestic debate. If a settlement freeze could not be obtained from Israel, Bush and Baker wanted the issue off the agenda. “[The United States] must do everything we can to give peace a chance,” Bush said in requesting the delay from Congress. Israeli leaders opposed linking the loans to the political process; Shamir and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington decided to push forward with their request despite Bush’s opposition. Israel and its supporters in Washington began a campaign to support the loan request, but Bush, with a 70 percent job approval rating, would not back down. By mid-September, U.S.-Israel relations were tense; pro-Israel groups challenged the president and lobbied against the delay. Shamir had originally believed he could outflank Bush and Baker and turn to U.S. public opinion and the pro-Israel lobby. However, the U.S. Jewish community—though visibly mobilized on this issue—was not united in taking on the Administration, and Shamir soon backed away from a direct confrontation. With Bush’s approval ratings high, and his unambiguous show of determination and will, he gained congressional support for the delay; following that, the diplomatic pieces soon fell into place and the parties convened in Madrid at the end of October.
The Palestinian team, because of Israeli objections, was initially formally a part of a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation and consisted of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza without open PLOassociations like Saeb Erekat and Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the head of the delegation. However, the delegation was in constant communication with the PLO leadership in Tunis. Over Israeli objections, the PLOdispatched an unofficial “advisory delegation,” headed by Faisal Husseini to act as a liaison.
The purpose of the conference was to serve as an opening forum for the participants and had no power to impose solutions or veto agreements. It inaugurated negotiations on both bilateral and multilateral tracks that also involved the international community. The Syrian and Lebanese negotiators agreed on a common strategy.
The first-ever public bilateral talks between Israel and its neighbors (except Egypt) were aimed at achieving peace treaties between the 3 Arab states and Israel, while the talks with the Palestinians were based on a 2-stage formula, the first consisting of negotiating interim self-government arrangements, to be followed by permanent status negotiations. (This formula was essentially followed in the later Oslo Accords.) They opened immediately following the conference on November 3, 1991 in Madrid, and were followed by over a dozen formal rounds in Washington, DC from December 9, 1991 to January 24, 1994.
The multilateral negotiations, which opened in Moscow on January 28, 1992, were held in 5 separate forums each focused on a major issue – water, environment, arms control, refugees and economic development, and were later held, until November 1993 throughout the world including European capitals and the Middle East. At first, Israel refused to take part in the refugee and economic meetings as Palestinians from outside the West Bank and Gaza were present. Syria and Lebanon refused to take part in multilateral meetings as long as there was no concrete progress on the bilateral level.
Formal talks in the multilateral track, which had been frozen for several years, resumed on January 31, 2000 with a meeting of the Steering Committee in Moscow, to be followed by meetings of the working groups.
The Israeli-Jordan negotiations, which emanated from the Madrid conference, eventually led to a peace treaty in 1994. The Israeli-Syrian negotiations included series of follow-on meetings, which according to some reports, came quite close, but failed to result in a peace treaty.
The bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations did not go well under the Shamir government. The Madrid negotiations were later upstaged and eventually replaced by initially secret and illegal negotiations (according to Israeli law at the time) following the 1992 Israeli election, during which Rabin and Labor pledged to end Shamir’s settlement policy and reformulate national priorities. These independent negotiations eventually led to the exchange of letters and the subsequent signing of the Declaration of Principles, on the lawn of the White House on 13 September 1993. While the principles were essentially based on terms which the Palestinian negotiators in the Madrid round had earlier rejected, the negotiating positions and their negotiating partner had changed.
The Impact of the Madrid Peace Conference
In the negotiations leading to Madrid, Israel made revocation of UN Resolution 3379 a condition of its participation in the conference; this was accomplished shortly thereafter, with the passage of Resolution 46/86, on December 16, 1991. Israel also cites, as a major benefit of the conference and the peace process, the greatly increased number of countries which recognize and have some degree of diplomatic relations with it – nearly doubling – in particular citing the major powers of China and India and some even in the Arab world, like Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania, along with the decline of the Arab boycott and economic relations with some of the Arab countries.
In The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction, Gregory Harms and Todd Ferry argue that ‘the symbolic significance of the Madrid conference far outweighed its accomplishments, which were thin indeed.’ Nevertheless, an example had been made and a future model had been laid down. Moreover, the Madrid conference represents the first time all these countries had been gathered “face-to-face”. Indeed, ‘from Rhodes in 1949 to Madrid in 1991’ attempts to bring about peace in the region had failed. However, although the conference led to few practical and legal solutions, the Madrid peace conference of 1991 still signifies a remarkable “twist in events” as the Palestine question was at long last dealt with. Yet because the Madrid Conference was based on the idea of ‘abandoning the dynamics of confrontation’, but more importantly because what ensued, through the Oslo Accords were isolated arrangements on disorganised technicalities such as crossings, borders, security, prisoners and so on, numerous of people are nowadays still ‘opposed to that ground- breaking leap’ which the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 represents to many. On the other hand, in 2002 the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, while voicing his opinion on a proposed future action of Israeli withdrawal from recently occupied towns followed by a declaration of a Palestinian state, argued:
“The idea is not to go backwards but to return to the basic formula that was established in Madrid: the exchange of land for peace,”[
At the end of the Madrid conference all participating countries appeared hopeful that the conference had resulted in a future road-map for reconciliation. The closing remarks presented below illustrate this hopeful sentiment:
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir , 1 November 1991
“With an open heart, we call on the Arab leaders to take the courageous step and respond to our outstretched hand in peace”
Head of the Palestinian Delegation, Haydar Abd al-Shafi, 1 November 1991
“To the cosponsors and to the international community that seeks the achievement of a just peace in the Middle East, you have given us a fair hearing. You cared enough to listen and for that we thank you. Thank you.”
American Secretary of State, James Baker seemed to have accomplished what he had initially wished for: peace negotiations which would lead to closer cooperation and reconciliation between the countries of the Middle East. However, Middle East scholar Louise Fawcett argues that by 1993 when Clinton came to office ‘the initial momentum of Madrid had flagged, and the subsequent bilateral talks in Washington between Israel and its neighbours had got bogged down.’ Thus, the Madrid conference was not to be the conference which would create peace in the Middle East, albeit the first step towards greater understanding and better communication among Middle Eastern countries.