25 years after the Madrid Conference: A shattered dream

Sunday 30/10/2016

It has been a quarter of a century since the Madrid Peace Conference. In the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was the first and only serious attempt at reaching a comprehensive peace on four tracks — Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese — Egypt having already signed a peace agreement with Israel.
Comprehensive peace meant engaging in multilateral negotia­tions regarding refugees, water, arms control, regional security, the environment as well as economic cooperation and development. Negotiations were supposed to address key common issues in terms of their implications and concerns for the Arabs in exchange for attractive issues of normalisa­tion for the Israelis. The principle of trade-offs was there, carrying different incentives for the Arabs and Israelis.
The end of the Cold War allowed for US-Soviet cooperation and partnership while the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait opened the door towards establishment of a new re­gional order as called for by former US president George Bush, thriv­ing on the Arab international coali­tion that defeated Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. The second Palestinian intifada sent a strong warning about the need to break the status quo of occupation.
All these factors combined into a driving force behind the Madrid conference, which began October 30th, 1991. Yet the moment of optimism and hope was rapidly dashed because of the lack of serious commitment and needed engagement on the part of a third party group, mainly the United States, to commit itself to push for peace and overcome Israel intran­sigence.
Madrid ended up with a Jordani­an-Israeli peace accord, which was the easiest track among the four compared to the core one — being the Palestinian — and the strategic two-in-one, being the Syrian and the Lebanese — with the latter hanging on the former. It led also to the Oslo accords.
In other words, the fall of the comprehensive approach and its being replaced by the gradual transitional step-by-step approach on the Palestinian issue.
A shift occurred since then from a strategy of conflict resolution to one of conflict management on the core Palestinian issue. The Arab Peace Initiative that was devel­oped later was not translated into a policy-oriented strategy because the Arabs did not commit the nec­essary diplomatic resources to it.
The current Palestinian disunity and absence of serious working consensus within the Palestinian body politic, the Arab fragmenta­tion and the emergence of key pressing priorities on the agen­das of the key international and regional actors in a conflict-torn Middle East have marginalised the Palestinian issue.
Yet, identity-based conflicts such as national liberation ones — which is the case of the Palestin­ian issue — never die because of a certain unfavourable balance of power. The danger of marginalisa­tion could turn a conflict from a political one (national liberation) into a religious one with a strong revival of religious radicalism, especially when the occupied ter­ritories are defined and defended as being the promised land.
Indeed, religious radicalism be­gets religious radicalism. The Pal­estinian conflict area could become an attractive hotbed for jihadism. The danger also lies in Israel’s set­tlement policy aiming at changing the geographic and demographic natures of the occupied territories, destroying the possibility of estab­lishing a viable Palestinian state.
The parameters and process for a serious comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict are well established. Negotiations could be resumed under the strategy of re­versed engineering, defining a final set of goals based on the reached agreements and pertinent UN reso­lutions. This means allowing the establishment of a viable Palestin­ian state along the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital and for the two states to exist side by side in peace.
Such a commitment to the final goals facilitates making hard con­cessions. This needs five elements:
— a standing international conference that meets every time it is necessary to follow and ac­company the negotiations. From it emanates a committee to follow on the goals of the conference;
— a well-defined time frame for negotiations;
— the definition of the terms of reference of the negotiations for no serious negotiations take place in a vacuum;
— the assuming by the third par­ty (the follow-up committee on the part of the conference) of the role of the referee, facilitator, bridge builder and responsibility for the respect of the terms of reference;
— to provide at the end of the process all the necessary guar­antees for implementation of the agreement.
Time works against peace amid current Israeli policies.
It is also important for the Pal­estinian leadership to be up to the challenge and be over and above its members’ ideological organisation­al and political differences and to develop a policy-oriented strategy towards the achievement of the Palestinian state.
The hope is that the lessons of a quarter of a century of missed opportunities could be learnt in the interest of peace, which is in the interest of all, allowing for the opening of a new page in the his­tory of the Middle East.