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Israeli, Palestinian experts revisit Madrid peace talks, 30 years later

Israeli, Palestinian experts revisit Madrid peace talks, 30 years later
Four veterans of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict discuss the 1991 Madrid peace talks in an Oct. 13 Zoom call. Top left: moderator and AU professor Guy Ziv; top right; Palestinian activist and spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi; bottom left: Israeli politician Yossi Beilin; bottom right: Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel.

TEL AVIV — On Oct. 30, 1991, in the presence of President George H.W. Bush, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and other leaders, the first major peace conference between Israel and its Arab neighbors got underway in Madrid.

That landmark event led to Oslo, and ultimately an agreement of mutual recognition in which the Israelis and newly created Palestinian Authority pledged to achieve a peace treaty based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and to fulfill the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.”

Yet 30 years after Madrid, real peace remains elusive—and there’s still no Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“Nowadays, neither side believes in the chance for a two-state solution,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a longtime Palestinian activist and spokeswoman for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Palestinians protest the Sept. 15, 2020, signing of the Abraham Accords in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“Public opinion has shifted. Israel has superimposed greater Israel on Palestine and created an apartheid system. I see it happening every day, destroying the very foundations of peace,” she said. “You have a situation which gave Israel the right to negate the Palestinians, of course, with the cooperation of [Donald] Trump and his philosophy of bashing the Palestinians into submission. We are still suffering from that.”

Ashrawi offered her thoughts during an Oct. 13 webinar hosted by American University’s School of International Service and Center for Israel Studies (CIS). The one-hour event, hosted by CIS Director Michael Brenner, was moderated by Guy Ziv, an AU associate professor of foreign policy.

Joining Ashrawi on the panel were two experts on one of the world’s most intractable conflicts: veteran Israeli parliamentarian Yossi Beilin—longtime chairman of the leftist Meretz party—and career diplomat Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to both Israel and Egypt.

“Madrid did represent a significant process or procedural breakthrough, because it was the first time that Arabs and Israelis sat down first in a conference setting and then in bilateral negotiations,” said Kurtzer, now a professor of Middle East policy at Princeton University. He said this was made possible by the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s collapse, leaving the United States by 1991 as the world’s only superpower.

Michael Brenner, director of American University’s Center for Israel Studies, opens a virtual discussion Oct. 13 on the Madrid peace conference, 30 years later. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“The US had led an international coalition to reverse Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait which included three key Arab states, making it easier to deal with the question of Palestinian representation, at least in Madrid,” said Kurtzer. “The problems, however, with Madrid were manifold. Number one, it did not resolve any of the substantive issues in any way—Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and the like—and number two, the United States failed to create a monitoring and accountability process to hold the parties to the commitments they had made.”

Further undermining the effort was what Kurtzer termed a lack of leadership in the wake of Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, known as the architect of the Madrid peace conference.

“We haven’t seen that same US commitment and verve since then, which I think accounts, in part, for the failure to make progress,” the former diplomat said.

Yet Beilin told his fellow panelists “it’s really unfair” to characterize Madrid as a failure.

Graffiti covers a concrete barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian Authority near Ramallah. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“I think it helped a lot to actually enable us to create a better atmosphere in the Middle East,” said Beilin, 73 and now chairman of Israel’s Hillel Student Organization. “The Oslo agreement would  not have happened  without Madrid, and peace between Israel and Jordan would not have happened without Oslo. We didn’t achieve all that we really wanted to, but the modest achievements were very, very important, and changed the face of the Middle East.”

Asked whether a new international peace conference would benefit the Palestinian cause in any way, Ashrawi was skeptical.

“I think the time has passed for a variety of reasons. We need a different approach,” said the 75-year-old activist from Nablus. “The younger generation of Palestine is saying, ‘we want freedom, we want dignity, we want equal rights.’ This is a gamechanger because the younger generation is much more adamant about this approach than they are about finding compromises and giving away pieces of land here and there. Very few people believe that with the current Israeli government, there is a chance of any kind of legitimate or just peace.”

Ashrawi added: “It comes down to leadership. Do we have leaders who are ready to look beyond today’s problems and say, ‘maybe we can actually move forward?’ In that respect, the two-state solution is never going to die, until the two sides come up with an alternative. So far, there is no serious alternative. One state is not going to be acceptable in Israel, nor are three states separating the West Bank and Gaza. Confederation with Jordan would require Jordan’s buy-in. As you go down the possible options as alternatives to the two-state solution, they all fall by the wayside. Almost like a doctor diagnosing a patient, you reject alternatives until you’re left with a two-state outcome in which both nations find a way to live as neighbors.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.