The Madrid Conference
U.S. secretary of state Baker’s visits to the Middle East in the spring and early summer of 1991 made it clear that there was no agreement to convene a conference that would lead to bilateral negotiations; there was discord on both procedural and substantive issues. The issues in contention included the venue of a conference (whether in the region or elsewhere), what powers and authority it would have (for example, primarily ceremonial in nature), under whose auspices it should be conducted (whether the United Nations would be a factor), which Palestinians and other Arabs could and would attend, and what prior commitments had to be made by the participants.
But, following months of shuttle diplomacy by Baker, a Middle East peace conference was convened in Madrid, Spain, on October 30, under American and Soviet cosponsorship, with the participation of delegations from Israel, Lebanon, and Syria and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
The Madrid conference did not achieve a substantive breakthrough, although it broke the procedural and psychological barriers to direct bilateral negotiations between Israel and its immediate neighbors: The Israeli, Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese, and Jordanian-Palestinian delegations met at an open, public, and official plenary session and delivered speeches and responses. These formal proceedings were followed by bilateral negotiations in Washington, D.c., between the parties in December 1991 and in 1992, 1993, and 1994, and by multilateral talks addressing regional concerns.
The Madrid Peace conference seemed to resolve the problem of Palestinian representation, at least in the immediate context of the bilateral discussions. The Palestinians of the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation had a measure of authority and legitimacy for their roles in the Madrid round and in the bilateral discussions that followed. They were able to deal with Israel, in part because Israel’s conditions were met—the Palestinian representatives were not formally part of the Plo, not from the areas outside the West Bank and Gaza, and not from East Jerusalem.
The first rounds of talks achieved accord on nonsubstantive matters, and progress was measured primarily by the continuation of the process rather than by significant achievements. The United States adhered to its role as a facilitator and sought not to intervene on substantive matters. It was not a party to the bilateral talks, and its representatives were not in the room or at the negotiating table, although it did meet separately with the parties and heard their views and perspectives.
The Madrid-inaugurated process included multilateral discussions on several broader regional issues: refugees, economic development, water resources, environment, and arms control. An initial organizing conference met in Moscow in January 1992. The goal was to achieve progress on these issues, even without a political solution, and to reinforce the bilateral negotiations.
The five permanent members of the Security Council and a number of other important powers (including the European community and Japan) were represented in Moscow; the sessions were boycotted by the Palestinians because Palestinians from outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip were prevented from participating.
Despite the achievements symbolized by the Madrid conference and the subsequent bilateral and multilateral discussions, by the time of the hiatus for the Israeli elections in June 1992 and the U.S. elections in November 1992, no breakthrough of substance had occurred and no specific achievement, beyond the continuation of the process, had been recorded. The United States believed that the time was not yet ripe for its involvement—the substantive differences between the parties were too broad and the United States could not bridge the gap.
Also, there was a recognition that Madrid’s plenary sessions were less concerned with real negotiations than public posturing and the subsequent private discussions in Washington, D.c., was not accompanied by the requisite informal signaling essential to the success of peace negotiations. Nevertheless, the Baker team seemed optimistic that while the differences between the parties were still wide, they would eventually narrow, and then it would be possible to bridge the gap.