The Madrid Conference was hosted by the government of Spain and co-sponsored by the USA and the USSR. It convened on October 30 1991 and lasted for three days. It was an early attempt by the international community to start a peace process through negotiations involving Israel and the Arab countries including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, US President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker formulated the framework of objectives, and together with the Soviet Union extended a letter of invitation, dated October 30, 1991 to Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians.
The purpose of the conference was to serve as an opening forum for the participants and had no power to impose solutions or veto agreements. It inaugurated negotiations on both bilateral tracks and on multilateral tracks that also involved the international community. The Syrian and Lebanese negotiators agreed on a common strategy.
The first-ever public bilateral talks between Israel and its neighbors (except Egypt) were aimed at achieving peace treaties between the 3 Arab states and Israel, while the talks with the Palestinians were based on a 2-stage formula, the first consisting of negotiating interim self-government arrangements, to be followed by permanent status negotiations. (This formula was essentially followed in the later Oslo Accords.) They opened immediately following the conference on November 3 1991 in Madrid, and were followed by over a dozen formal rounds in Washington, DC from December 9 1991 to January 24 1994
The multilateral negotiations which opened in Moscow on January 28 1992 were held in 5 separate forums each focused on a major issue - water, environment, arms control, refugees and economic development, and were later held, until November 1993 throughout the world including European capitals and the Middle East. At first, Israel refused to take part in the refugee and economic meetings as Palestinians from outside the West Bank and Gaza were present. Syria and Lebanon refused to take part in multilateral meetings as long as there was no concrete progress on the bilateral level.
Formal talks in the multilateral track, which had been frozen for several years, resumed on January 31 2000 with a meeting of the Steering Committee in Moscow, to be followed by meetings of the working groups.
The Israeli-Jordan negotiations eventually led to a peace treaty signed in 1994, while the Israeli-Syrian ones led to several series of negotiations, which came quite close on some reports, but did not result in a peace treaty.
The bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were upstaged and eventually replaced by initially secret and illegal (according to Israeli law) negotiations that finally led to the exchange of letters of 9 and 10 September 1993 and the subsequent 13 September 1993 signing on the lawn of the White House of the Declaration of Principles, which however were essentially based on terms which the Madrid round Palestinian negotiators had earlier rejected.
Israel cites as a major benefit of the conference and the process, the greatly increased number of countries which recognize and have some degree of diplomatic relations with it - nearly doubling - in particular citing the major powers of China and India and some even in the Arab world, like Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania, along with the decline of the Arab boycott and economic relations with some of the Arab countries.
In The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction, Gregory Harms and Todd Ferry argue that ‘the symbolic significance of the Madrid conference far outweighed its accomplishments, which were thin indeed.’ Nevertheless, an example had been made and a future model had been laid down. Moreover, the Madrid conference represents the first time all these countries had been gathered “face-to-face”. Indeed, ‘from Rhodes in 1949 to Madrid in 1991’ attempts to bring about peace in the region had failed. However, although the conference led to few practical and legal solutions, the Madrid peace conference of 1991 still signifies a remarkable “twist in events” as the Palestine question was at long last dealt with. Yet because the Madrid Conference was based on the idea of ‘abandoning the dynamics of confrontation’, but more importantly because what ensued, through the Oslo Accords were isolated arrangements on disorganised technicalities such as crossings, borders, security, prisoners and so on, numerous of people are nowadays still ‘opposed to that ground- breaking leap’ which the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 represents to many. On the other hand, in 2002 the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, while voicing his opinion on a proposed future action of Israeli withdrawal from recently occupied towns followed by a declaration of a Palestinian state, argued:
"The idea is not to go backwards but to return to the basic formula that was established in Madrid: the exchange of land for peace,
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir , 1 November 1991
“With an open heart, we call on the Arab leaders to take the courageous step and respond to our outstretched hand in peace”
Head of the Palestinian Delegation, Haydar Abd al-Shafi, 1 November 1991
“To the cosponsors and to the international community that seeks the achievement of a just peace in the Middle East, you have given us a fair hearing. You cared enough to listen and for that we thank you. Thank you.”
American Secretary of State, James Baker seemed to have accomplished what he had initially wished for: peace negotiations which would lead to closer cooperation and reconciliation between the countries of the Middle East. However, Middle East scholar Louise Fawcett argues that by 1993 when Clinton came to office ‘the initial momentum of Madrid had flagged, and the subsequent bilateral talks in Washington between Israel and its neighbours had got bogged down.' Thus, the Madrid conference was not to be the conference which would create peace in the Middle East, albeit the first step towards greater understanding and better communication among Middle Eastern countries.
The Roadmap Leads Nowhere: There Is Fresh Talk of a New Effort to Resume the Middle East Peace Process. the Right Starting Point Is the Multilateral Approach Defined in the Madrid Conference of 1991
Nov 28, 2003; Former US secretary of state James Baker is not known for saying what he does not believe. So when he told me a couple of years...