Madrid Conference (1991)

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Middle East peace conference, 30 October1 November 1991.

Convened in 1991, the three-day Madrid Middle East Peace Conference was a historic breakthrough in ArabIsraeli diplomacy. It became a link between the end of the 1991 Gulf War and the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accord. It broke the taboo against Arab states, Palestinians, and Israelis meeting in public. In the years after the conference, bilateral and multilateral talks ensued, agreements were reached, and countries other than the United States became overtly engaged in managing the conflict.

A series of factors made the Madrid Conference possible. With the end of the Cold War, no patron could provide military assistance to sustain support for an Arab military option against Israel. Otherwise reluctant Arab states that had vilified Egypt for her separate peace with Israel during the 1970s were willing to accept Israel as a fact, primarily because the United States had, in defeating Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait, secured the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and political independence of Arab Gulf states. Extensive pre-negotiations over several years had outlined the conference's procedures, content, and representation issues. Since the conference validated its earlier peace treaty with Israel, Egypt warmly endorsed the conference's con-vocation. Tirelessly, after the Gulf War's conclusion, in eight diplomatic shuttle missions, U.S. secretary of state James A. Baker III persevered in convincing reluctant Israeli and Arab neighbors to meet in Madrid on 30 October 1991.

Historically, Israel had shunned conference diplomacy, where it feared that Arab states could align themselves uniformly against it and impose unwanted solutions. Israel accepted this confer-ence's format because bilateral talks were to emerge immediately from the ceremonial opening, with a U.S. assurance that the conference would not dictate solutions. While Moscow and Washington officially convened the conference, both Israel and the Arab world again placed their faith almost exclusively in U.S. diplomacy to push negotiations forward. For Israel, the United States remained its most dependable ally. After much hesitation, the Syrian leadership attended the Madrid Conference because it was conceptually based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which called for an exchange of territory for peace through direct negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian representation issue, which bedeviled the confer-ence's preparations, was solved with creation of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Israel refused to attend a conference with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a separate negotiating entity. While Yasir Arafat's PLO was not seated at the conference, indirect PLO participation ensured his containment of, if not control over, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza who were emerging as a political alternative to the PLO's leadership. Grudging support for the conference also helped refurbish the Palestinians' tarnished international image due to their earlier ringing endorsement of Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

No real negotiations were carried out at the conference; each delegation head used the podium to make political points to audiences listening at home. Political and regional issues, not military matters, were the main items on the negotiating agendas that flowed from the conference's opening. In the years that followed the conference, PalestinianIsraeli and SyrianIsraeli negotiations evolved, some of which led to detailed discussions and agreements during the 1990s. For several years after Madrid, multilateral talks were conducted in different world venues where issues of arms control, economic development, the environment, refugees, and water were discussed. While the United States continued to catalyze the diplomatic process in the 1990s, the Madrid Conference officially made the conflict's resolution and management a multilateral undertaking, thereafter engaging advocacy and financial support from individual European states, the European Union, Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others.

see also baker, james a.; oslo accord (1993).

kenneth w. stein