The conference that wasn’t – ‘Madrid’ in retrospect - opinion

The “Madrid Conference” and the bilateral follow-up yielded a number of important achievements for Israel.

THEN-SOVIET PRESIDENT Mikhail Gorbachev addresses the first meeting of the Mideast peace conference in Madrid on October 30, 1991. Alongside Gorbachev is US President George Bush. At far right is prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. (photo credit: JIM HOLLANDER/REUTERS)
THEN-SOVIET PRESIDENT Mikhail Gorbachev addresses the first meeting of the Mideast peace conference in Madrid on October 30, 1991. Alongside Gorbachev is US President George Bush. At far right is prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.

The event 30 years ago that has entered the annals of history as the “Madrid Conference” wasn’t a conference at all, but rather a one-time formal opening ceremony to an American-sponsored process of direct bilateral negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The scenery was festive, the proceedings less so. At the head of the table in the magnificent royal palace sat US president George H.W. Bush, Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev, and Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, flanked by the stage-manager of the event, US secretary of state James Baker, and on the other side by Soviet foreign minister Boris Pankin, whose entry ticket was Moscow’s renewing diplomatic relations with Israel.

Around the table sat the different delegations and their heads, with Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa setting the tone by calling Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir a “terrorist” and Palestinian delegate Saeb Erekat, not to be outdone, made a demonstrative entry wearing a keffiyeh – both arousing the visible ire of Baker. It was a harbinger of what was to come.

Historically and politically more significant however than the goings-on that day were its prequels and sequels. Israel traditionally opposed international conferences, realizing it would always be a minority there. 

For instance, in 1977 when the Carter administration planned a joint US-Soviet international conference in Geneva, in a brilliant diplomatic move, foreign minister Moshe Dayan succeeded in replacing it with Israel’s autonomy plan. And this time, when ideas about an international conference on Arab-Israel peace in the wake of the Gulf War began to be floated in Washington, Yitzhak Shamir’s government made plans to rebuff the initiative, or at least to change it. 

THE COUNTRY pays their last respects to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir after his death in 2012. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)THE COUNTRY pays their last respects to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir after his death in 2012. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

Baker believed that the US success in assembling an Arab coalition in the Gulf War had bolstered the Arab world’s confidence in it, and at the same time reducing Israel’s bargaining power (an assessment that proved wrong), and that a suitable background for an initiative on the Israeli-Arab question had been created as a result. A few weeks after the war’s end, Baker visited Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh, Amman, and Jerusalem to test the waters with regard to the proposed conference and there would be 10 additional shuttles like this. 

My view at the time was that the Americans were determined to go ahead with the conference and that instead of trying to abort it, it was preferable for Israel to focus on influencing its framework and rules. The prime minister accepted my opinion, but notified Baker that Israel insisted that the “regional meeting” (not a “conference”) would not be a forum for peace negotiations, but a one-time event “without UN involvement,” and so it was.

Relations between the secretary and myself at the time were strained because of the disputes about the American guarantees for the absorption of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union. I was, therefore, a bit surprised when one evening he phoned to tell me, “I want to start the peace process, and I want to do it with you.”

Soon after, there was a meeting with Baker and his team headed by Dennis Ross, and myself on behalf of the Israeli government, at which Baker announced it was the intention of the president to convene an international conference, to be based on UN Security Resolution 242, which didn’t call on Israel to withdraw from all the “territories” and made any withdrawals contingent on defensible borders. After some soul-searching and internal debates Israel had accepted “242,” though Shamir and some members of his staff continued to take a dim view of it.

After many proposals by various interested parties, including Turkey, Cyprus and others, it was decided that the meeting would be held in Madrid, the capital of Spain, because of Spain’s close relations with the Arab world. Once the venue was agreed, the sides got down to negotiate with the American sponsors about its framework, terms, timetable, etc. As to Israel, the talks alternated between Jerusalem and Washington.

At the first meeting with Baker and his staff in Jerusalem, Shamir, who usually listened attentively without interrupting, at one point stopped Baker in mid-sentence, objecting to the inclusion of settlements in the draft, saying “But this is our land,” in other words that no one will tell us where to build and where not to build in our own country. 

Another Israeli demand was that the PLO would not participate in the event or the process following it. Baker agreed and it was decided that the Palestinian representation would consist of residents of the territories in a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. 

In retrospect, however, it turned out that this was mostly fiction and that in practice, the Palestinian representatives got daily instructions from Yasser Arafat in Tunis. This didn’t please Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, head of the Palestinian group and a frequent critic of Arafat. Henry Kissinger, though long out of office, told me at the time that Israel should not be eager to achieve peace agreements and that it should prefer non-belligerence arrangements and establishing defensive and demilitarized zones between it and its neighbors. 

The next crucial step in preparing the “conference” took place in Washington between the American side and myself in close coordination with Shamir’s senior advisers, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office Yossi Ben Aharon, an experienced diplomat, and cabinet-secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, whose diplomatic skill was seasoned with a sense of humor and political and legal knowledge. Rubinstein, who later became deputy president of the Supreme Court, had cooperated with me before, when he was a legal adviser in the Defense Ministry under Dayan. 

Since it was obvious that the reporters besieging the State Department building knew about everything going on there, most of these talks took place around the dining table in my home between Ross and William Burns (later director of the CIA) on the American side – and myself, my deputy chief of mission Michael Shilo, and sometimes Shimon Stein, the embassy’s political counselor.

After prolonged back and forth our American interlocutors agreed to deny the Palestinian demand to make a separate speech at the planned event. They insisted, however, to approve their demand to mention “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” as Menachem Begin had agreed to in the Camp David agreements. More significant was the US for the first (and last) time explicitly stating that “the US would not support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.” 

Also agreed was that Jerusalem would not be mentioned in the agenda, and that past decisions concerning the Golan Heights would be noted in the document. My request that referring to Resolution 242 would not include a mention of withdrawals was also accepted. The State Department representatives initially argued that these demands effectively amounted to preconditions, but the document was eventually worded as we requested. Although it was supposed to be kept secret, its content was soon leaked to the media anyway.

Israel’s foreign minister David Levy decided not to go to Madrid after he learned that Shamir, with whom Levy’s relations, to put it mildly, were not ideal, was planning to attend the event himself, but the Foreign Ministry was ably represented by its director-general, Yossi Hadas. Replacing Levy himself was deputy foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who immediately upon arrival turned the “conference” into a fount of Israeli public relations. But in the meantime, trouble was brewing at home when three extreme right-wing coalition partners – HaTehiya, Tzomet, and Moledet – resigned from the government, thereby weakening the coalition and starting the slippery slope toward the Oslo process. 

In his speech in Madrid, Bush emphasized, as had been agreed with us, that the conference would not be reconvened without the consent of all of the parties, and called upon the Arab world to consider Israel’s “reasonable” security needs. On the matter of borders, he mentioned no specific map, and ignored the “land for peace” formula, but said the borders would have to reflect both the security elements and political arrangements.

The negotiations between the parties did not begin immediately after the ceremony in Madrid, among other things because of disputes about the proposed talks’ location. It was eventually decided, however, that they would take place at “Foggy Bottom” in Washington, as the Americans had planned in advance, and as I had assumed would be the case.

The sides were deadlocked in the early days, but after some creative steps, the ice was broken eventually and the talks began. The talks between the Syrians, Lebanon and the Israeli delegation, led by Yossi Ben Aharon, went nowhere. It was clear from the first day that Damascus had no intention of conducting real negotiations, and the Lebanese, in any case didn’t utter a word without checking first with the Syrians.

The situation in the talks with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation was a different matter, though the Palestinians under orders of the PLO merely parroted slogans and demands concerning Jerusalem and the refugees, obviously designed primarily for propaganda. The intention of the Jordanians, as stated from the beginning by their head, Dr. Abdel Salam al-Majali, was indeed to reach a peace agreement. 

A large proportion of the details in the peace treaty with Jordan were agreed during Shamir’s term as prime minister, although the agreement itself was signed by Yitzhak Rabin after he replaced Shamir as prime minister. Rubinstein continued to lead the talks with the Jordanians and Palestinians after the change of governments. I also remained a member of the Israeli delegation till the end of my term as ambassador a few months hence.

But after a few days we had a growing feeling that the Palestinians were completely stalling, probably as turned out later, because the talks with PLO representatives had begun in Oslo behind the back of the newly elected government. Baker, when I met him several years later, said to me that in his view Oslo had eliminated any chance of achieving peace according to the Madrid blueprint.

The “Madrid Conference” and the bilateral follow-up yielded a number of important achievements for Israel: it laid the foundations for peace with Jordan; for the first time Arab countries in addition to Egypt conducted direct negotiations with Israel, and Israel’s international standing improved, at least temporarily.

Shamir proved to be a stable and principled leader, and when required also a pragmatic and flexible statesman. In retrospect, instead of a potential catch-22, the Madrid “Conference” turned out to be a solid diplomatic and political achievement for Israel, without abandoning any of its basic positions.

The writer, also a former MK, served as Israel’s ambassador to the US from 1990-1993 and 1998-2000.