The Madrid Conference, thirty years on


November 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference. The conference, held at the Palacio Real in Madrid between 30 October and 1 November 1991 and hosted by the Spanish government, was one of the most prominent Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives to date.

With its lights and shadows, the 1991 Madrid conference was seen at the time as a triumph of global diplomacy and multilateralism with few precedents, an example of political will on the part of the actors involved in the tangled Arab-Israeli conflict.

Indeed, the world in 1991 was at a unique juncture. It was the golden age of internationalism and multilateral cooperation; optimism pervaded the advocates of a liberal international order led by Washington and the European democracies. Relations between the Soviet Union, in its death throes and led by Mikhail Gorbachev, and the United States under George H. W. Bush (the father) were thawing, and they were part of the negotiations in Madrid. Almost two years earlier, in January 1990, a broad coalition led by the US and supported by some thirty countries, including the USSR, had resoundingly defeated Iraqi troops in the Gulf War, which was seen as a victory for the international community against the tyranny, in this case, of Saddam Hussein. In short, the conditions were optimal for tackling one of the most complicated problems of the time: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There was therefore reason for optimism in many corners of the world. Cold War tensions seemed a thing of the past, a better world could be built by joining forces between former rivals. A window to address the complex problem of the Middle East opened. The US, established as the undisputed leader for much of the international community after the Gulf War, had a certain legitimacy as a mediator or, in English, honest broker. The fact that the two parties to the Middle East conflict, the Arab bloc and Israel, gave the US such a position helped the conference to take place. After all, the key to any negotiation is that the parties involved agree to be at the table.

The Madrid conference was seen as the first step in the long and tortuous journey that has been the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a point of departure rather than arrival. As Bush himself declared twenty years later, the Madrid negotiations "set the stage for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace". Although viewed in this light the conference may seem little more than symbolic, the truth is that it paved the way for the future achievement of concrete and tangible results.

Indeed, the conference was historic in that it brought about a set of circumstances unprecedented in modern history. For the first time, Israel and Palestine agreed to negotiate at the same table, regardless of their radically opposed positions. Madrid laid the foundations for dialogue between the two sides, culminating in the 1993-1994 Oslo Accords, in which Israel recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat as an interlocutor in the conflict, and in return the Palestinian authorities recognised the State of Israel.

The conference was also pioneering in its inclusiveness, as in addition to the two world powers, it also included delegations from several countries with an interest in advancing the Middle East peace process, such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The fact that these Arab countries were part of the negotiations with Israel, against whom they had been engaged in six wars since the Jewish state's independence in 1948, is revealing of the importance attached to the Madrid conference. Again, the conference served as a first step towards the normalisation of two once warring neighbours, Jordan and Israel. The two governments signed a recognition treaty in 1994, which was largely made possible by the channels of communication that were opened up by the Madrid conference three years earlier. All in all, the Madrid negotiations could be seen as a rare moment of global communion, despite the obstacles.

After all, the positions of Israel and the Arab-Palestinian bloc were radically at odds, and many of their demands were incompatible. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian authorities revolved around the concept of land-for-peace, that is, Israel's renunciation of part of the territory that its government considered its own, in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbours and with Palestine that could lead to a future normalisation of relations. The sensitive issue of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, built since 1967 despite being declared illegal under international law, was the main obstacle to a comprehensive agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. Even so, the Madrid summit planted the seeds for greater cooperation between the two sides and for the historic Oslo accords three years later.

The main success of the Oslo accords was undoubtedly the mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but it was impossible to include a pact on the thorniest issues, including, of course, the status of illegal Israeli settlements. The idea was that such issues would be addressed in the future. Thus, Oslo was seen as a minimum agreement to be strengthened in the future. But that has not happened, and most experts agree that the process initiated in Madrid and consolidated in Oslo is dead. Although for the Palestinian Authority, formed as a result of the Oslo accords, it was finally confirmed as the representative of the Palestinians before the international community and legitimised by Israel, its most important demands - full sovereignty, an end to settlement building and the recognition of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital - were not addressed in Madrid, and remain so in 2021, with no incentive for Israel to budge on these issues.

On the other hand, the Madrid conference brought benefits to Israel, for, as its own foreign ministry acknowledged years later, it legitimised Israel's position vis-à-vis not only the Arab world, but also other countries that had previously been reluctant to establish diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. In particular, Israel was officially recognised by the two emerging powers of the time, India and China.

Turning to 2021, it is clear that the situation of relative optimism that pervaded the negotiations thirty years earlier has completely changed. With the Oslo process stalled, the perpetuation of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, the cooling of relations between the two sides, and little hope for a satisfactory new agreement, especially among the Palestinian population, have all contributed to the impossibility of opening a Madrid-style window. The reality is that the Palestinian population has witnessed Israel gain global recognition as a result of the Madrid conference without actually conceding on any of the demands made by the Palestinian authorities.

To make matters worse, the Israeli government has no incentive to give up land in exchange for peace, especially after its historic agreement with two Arab countries, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, once the main supporters of the Palestinian cause. Israel's position is increasingly normalised in the Middle East, which is great news for Israeli interests but bad news for the Palestinians. It is unlikely that in the near future circumstances will change and that a new peace process will take place that, this time, will not only help Israel's position but also that of the Palestinians. The status quo benefits Israel, so any new peace proposal should precisely change the status quo. Until then, the stalemate will continue.