Ian Black was a former Middle East correspondent and Middle East editor at The Guardian and a former contributing editor at The Jewish Quarterly. He died on 22 January 2023 from a rare neurological disease. This piece was completed shortly before his death. Characteristically, he suggested an early deadline because he was concerned about his failing health. His wife, Helen Harris, writes:
When Ian wrote this piece, his right hand no longer worked and he typed the article mainly with the forefinger of his left hand. At that point he could no longer speak and we communicated with a text-to-speech app that spoke with a BBC newsreader’s voice rather than Ian’s own. His mobility was failing. But the writing and thinking part of his brain carried on whirring away till the end.
On 30 October 1991, a landmark Middle Eastern event began in Madrid. It was the first ever public meeting between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, co-sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union. But the beautiful location was more impressive than the conference itself, which produced little immediate progress in resolving what was – and remains – one of the most intractable conflicts in the world.
Because of that failure, the conference has been largely forgotten, only vaguely remembered by the diplomats who were there and the journalists who covered it – including myself. Yet historians who have researched it over the past three decades tell a more complex story: its longer-term influence on later Arab–Israeli negotiations is too often ignored.
Geopolitically, these were rapidly changing times: the fact that the conference was arranged by the US and the USSR – former rivals for global power – speaks volumes. In March 1991, President George H.W. Bush told the United States Congress: “The time has come to put an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict.” Bush’s declaration was followed by eight months of intensive shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State James Baker.
The co-chairs were Bush and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who had survived a coup attempt that August and was flattered to be invited. It was attended by Israeli, Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese delegations, as well as, crucially, a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. For the first time, all parties to the Arab–Israeli conflict had gathered for direct negotiations.
Bush and Gorbachev tried hard to sustain the fiction of equality, but their media appearances underlined the imbalance in their status. Bush represented the world’s only superpower, while Gorbachev had the humiliation of being asked – by an Izvestia correspondent – to what extent he was still in charge of his country.
The four-day gathering began formally in the magnificent Palacio Real. Preparations went smoothly except for a spat over whether the hosts would remove an enormous oil painting of Charles V slaughtering Moors. The conference was held almost exactly 500 years after the conquest of Spain’s last Muslim kingdom. In an interview with El Mundo, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, who was in Tunis, called Spain “the most Arab country in Europe”.
Everyone recognised that the stakes were high: on the eve of the conference two Israeli settlers were killed and five injured when their bus was raked with gunfire on a lonely West Bank road. They had been on their way to a rally in Tel Aviv to urge the government to stand firm against demands for the surrender of any “administered” or occupied territory.
Bush’s description of the participants as “reluctant and uneasy players” was an understatement. “The real work will not happen here in the plenary session, but in direct bilateral negotiations,” he declared. From the first day the conference was largely ceremonial and choreographed – it attracted massive media coverage and provided arresting images. Over 5000 journalists covered it. Excitement was most palpable among the droves of Israeli correspondents trying – without great success – to interview their Arab colleagues. Some optimists tried to gain access to the actual delegations. One British journalist faxed an Israeli official describing himself as “the sole legitimate representative” of his magazine, but the jokey reference to the PLO was not appreciated.
In reality, the ban on PLO officials participating was a charade
The immediate regional context mattered a great deal: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 had boosted Washington’s confidence in its ability to influence the Middle East. Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, had worked with the United States to fight Iraq. Israel had shown restraint in the face of Scud missile fire from Iraq. The support for Saddam from King Hussein of Jordan and Arafat was another factor.
“Baker believed that the US success in assembling an Arab coalition in the Gulf War had bolstered the Arab world’s confidence in it,” Zalman Shoval, then Israel’s ambassador to Washington, wrote later, “at the same time reducing Israel’s bargaining power . . . 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 ended, Baker visited Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh, Amman and Jerusalem to test the waters with regard to the proposed event. And there were ten additional shuttles.
“The conference,” said the carefully worded US–Soviet invitation, “will have no power to impose solutions on the parties or veto agreements made by them. It will have no authority to make decisions for the parties and no ability to vote on issues or results. The conference can only convene with the consent of all the parties.”
Direct bilateral negotiations were to begin three days after the opening ceremony. Those parties wishing to attend multilateral negotiations were to convene two weeks afterwards to discuss arms control and regional security, water, environment and economic development. Two tracks were designed for negotiations: one between Israel and Arab states; and one between Israel and the Palestinians, but only as part of a delegation with Jordan. These were based on United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which called for an exchange of territory for peace through direct negotiations.
The United States then possessed a rare means of pressure on Jerusalem: Bush resisted an Israeli request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to finance housing for the surge in Russian immigrants. Concerned that the money would finance illegal settlement growth, Washington postponed a decision until February 1992.
From the start, there was not much optimism: a week before the event, Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s Likud prime minister and former Stern Gang leader, announced that he would be leading the delegation rather than his foreign minister, David Levy, ignoring the requirement that all participants be represented by their foreign ministers. The opposition Labour Party accused Shamir of torpedoing peace efforts. The move also pointed to a tough stance being adopted by Israel in response to the increasingly overt role of the PLO, which had been formally excluded from the talks because of American and Israeli opposition. That toxic element provided a lot of tension: Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian delegation, attracted attention by draping a keffiyeh over his suit. Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa set the tone by displaying a British Mandate–era “Wanted” photograph of Shamir and calling him a terrorist. Both aroused Baker’s visible ire.
In reality, the ban on PLO officials participating was a charade: Israeli representatives knew full well that the organisation’s leaders would hold frantic phone conversations from their headquarters in Tunis with Palestinians attending the sessions. Nabil Shaath, a close adviser to Arafat, was in Madrid and repeatedly briefed journalists. Hanan Ashrawi, the official spokesperson, always took care to stress the connection with the PLO. Her colleague Faisal Husseini, from East Jerusalem, quipped that “the suit that the American peace team tailored for the negotiations does not fit my body”.
The very fact that there were Palestinian representatives was perceived as a sign of the success of the intifada, which had erupted nearly four years earlier. “For the first time, we shall sit across the table from our enemies,” wrote the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, “in a negotiation that is neither secret nor local, but international, relatively open, and held under the auspices of the major powers.”
No real negotiations were carried out at the conference itself; each delegation head instead used the podium to make political points to audiences at home. One memorable moment came when the chairman of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi, made a touching, quietly spoken speech. A veteran supporter of the PLO, he had spent three years in an Israeli prison. “We seek neither an admission of guilt after the fact, nor vengeance for past iniquities,” he said, “but rather an act of will that would make a just peace a reality.”
Shamir spoke of the need to “build confidence” and “remove the danger of confrontation”. At the same time, he appeared to rule out exchanging land for peace. “The issue is not territory but our existence,” he said. No one applauded, but no one walked out either. Abdel-Shafi, by contrast, spoke practically, saying Palestinians would accept a “transitional stage provided that interim arrangements are not transformed into permanent status” – offering at least a start for the bilateral process. Shamir, who was not observant, flew home in time for Shabbat on Friday, 1 November, underlining his overall negative approach.
Abdel-Shafi played well on deep divisions in the Jewish state. “We have seen you anguish over the transformation of your sons and daughters into instruments of a blind and violent occupation,” he told Israelis, “and we are sure that at no time did you envisage such a role for the children you thought would forge your future.” Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, excelled at his own art of advocacy by scoffing at Abdel-Shafi’s “flowery language”. Netanyahu – dubbed the “Abba Eban of the CNN era” – turned the conference into a fount of Israeli hasbara.
On 3 November, Israeli–Palestinian negotiations began, away from the stilted posturing of the Palacio Real. The location was the more modest Palacio de Parcent, a justice ministry building in central Madrid. A five-strong Israeli delegation, headed by cabinet secretary Elyakim Rubinstein; six Jordanians, led by King Hussein’s adviser, Abdel Salam al-Majali; and five Palestinians, led by Abdel-Shafi. “Businesslike” was the adjective most used about their meeting.
But endless wrangling delayed Israel’s bilateral encounters with the Syrians and Lebanese. After the Lebanese ended their first round, the Syrians finally sat down with the Israelis more than twelve hours later than scheduled.
Netanyahu expressed “astonishment” at the Syrians’ failure to turn up at the time and venue agreed with the United States. “These are games,” he added. “If you’re serious about peace, be there at the designated time, at the designated place.”
Following Madrid, Israeli, Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian representatives continued to meet for bilateral talks in Washington, DC, and multilateral talks commenced in Moscow in 1992. Yet by 1993, the Washington talks had become deadlocked and were overtaken by secret Israeli–Palestinian and Israeli–Jordanian negotiations, which produced the Israeli–Palestinian Declaration of Principles (the Oslo Accord) of September 1993 and the Israeli–Jordanian peace treaty of October 1994. Much of the latter treaty was agreed during Shamir’s term as prime minister, though it was signed by his successor, Labour’s Yitzhak Rabin.
“The Madrid Conference has not been granted its proper place in history”
Madrid was clearly less significant than the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty of 1979 and Oslo. But thirty years later, perceptions about its importance have begun to change. “The Madrid Conference has not been granted its proper place in history,” Rubinstein told Haaretz in October 2021.
It was the first table around which Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians sat openly. There were a lot of meetings before that . . . but this time – symbolized by the photograph of me shaking hands with my Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts – a new era began, diplomatically open, in frameworks of negotiations that never existed before.
Ashrawi has also characterised Madrid as a “game-changer”, and Yossi Beilin, back then a Meretz leader, told a thirtieth-anniversary webinar that characterising Madrid as a failure is “unfair”. “I think it helped a lot to actually enable us to create a better atmosphere in the Middle East,” said Beilin. “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.” ▤