(photo credit: Moshe Milner/ GPO)
Diplomats and academics from the Middle East and the West converged on Madrid on Wednesday to seek ways to reignite the spirit of peacemaking of the 1991 Madrid peace conference.
The so-called Madrid + 15 Peace Conference, set to begin on Thursday, is being attended by leaders from Israel, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, the US, the Palestinian Authority, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and is termed an "unofficial gathering" rather than negotiations.
Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was a member of Israel's delegation to Madrid 15 years ago, said the meeting itself was significant.
"My expectations start with the very existence of this meeting, which brings back all the original delegations," he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "This conveys the message that we can meet even in troubled times."
"We know that with the Palestinians [the meeting point] lies somewhere between the Clinton peace parameters and the Arab peace initiative, and with the Syrians, it is somewhere between the international border and the 1967 borders," Ben-Ami said.
Ben-Ami added that "after 15 years of trial and error we have become a bit wiser, all of us. Everyone knows what we mean by land and everyone knows what we mean by peace, so things have become far clearer."
Ben-Ami said that he believed that "Israelis and Palestinians sitting together will never reach a settlement."
"I have personally have lost any hope that peace can be reached by bilateral negotiations. I don't believe this is possible, it is out of the question," he said.
"So, what needs to be done is to have these kind of international envelopes which would put a peace plan on the table. This peace plan will act in sort of reverse engineering. We start from the end, 'this is the plan,' and go backwards to see how to implement it."
Referring to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent consideration of the Arab peace initiative, Ben-Ami said that "he gave us hell when we were at Camp David ... Things that we had understood at the age of 16, he has understood now." Regarding the working sessions scheduled to take place Thursday, Ben-Ami said that the message from the Syrian delegation was that "they didn't come to quarrel, they came in good spirits."
Ben-Ami added that documents and guidelines had been prepared by Israel for the conference's moderators and participants.
The conference, initiated by the Toledo International Center for Peace, Search for Common Ground, Fundacion Tres Culturas, and the FAFO Institute and the International Crisis Group, is an attempt to to show that, while there are "undeniable differences between the parties on the Middle East conflict, they are not unbridgeable," said Emilio Cassinello, director of the Toledo International Center for Peace.
"Despite all the obstacles, we hope to restart meaningful negotiations," said John Marks, President of Search for Common Ground.
In late 1991, talks sponsored by the Spanish government brought Israel together with all of its Arab adversaries for the first time. Some say that meeting at the ornate Spanish Royal Palace achieved little, while others believe it helped launch the Oslo talks that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
Spain has thrown its weight behind the effort, sending Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, a former EU envoy to the Middle East, to the conference.
Moratinos and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero have been vocal in recent months in their calls to advance peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. In November, Spain, France and Italy called for a greater European role in ending the conflict. Moratinos said any solution must move beyond the stalled road map for peace.
AP contributed to this report.