The Madrid Conference Legacy: Thirty Years Later

By Theo Hyman-Bockman


The Madrid Peace Conference Legacy event was arranged as a Zoom meeting between prominent Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials to give reflections on the three decades since the conference’s initiation in 1991. The Israeli participant was Dr. Yossi Beilin, a professor and former Knesset member who was instrumental in conducting the backchannel negotiations that resulted in the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s. Voicing the Palestinian perspective was Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a political and civil society activist for the Palestinian territories and former minister of Higher Education and Research for the Palestinian Authority. Finally, the American perspective was given by Dan Kurtzer, a former official in the State Department who worked in President Clinton’s Arab-Israeli peace team.

Each speaker began by responding to a question about the substantive legacy of the Madrid conference. Kurtzer was quick to note that the conference was a significant achievement in and of itself. Despite the failure to negotiate a lasting peace deal, the conference dealt with many other crucial issues for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, such as the sharing of water resources. Dr. Ashrawi added that the conference helped legitimize the PLO within the Palestinian community and in the international community as the representative of the Palestinians. The conference began to shift the nature of the conflict from violence to negotiation; however, she blamed the conference’s failure on Israel and America for failing to uphold and enforce commitments the countries had made during the conference. Dr. Beilin, who was involved intimately in the Oslo negotiations, related that the process could not have happened without Madrid; in that sense, even though the Oslo Accords have stalled and violence and occupation continue, Madrid was a step in the right direction.

From there, the guest speakers talked about the value of diplomacy and negotiations in moving the current situation toward the all-important outcome of peace. Dr. Ashrawi spent much of her time speaking about Palestinian distrust of the diplomatic process. Saying that “the time has passed”, she criticized Israel for continuing to settle Jews in the West Bank. She also criticized the United States for adopting a biased diplomatic stance towards Israel. She accused Israel of adopting a stalling process, whereby under the guise of ongoing negotiation, the status quo can be maintained to the benefit of Israeli settlers and the detriment of Palestinians.

Kurtzer responded that negotiations are a time-consuming, dynamic process that requires participants to learn from previous frameworks to create dynamics that will result in a satisfactory outcome for all participants. The only way this can be done, he stressed, is if there were governments on the Israeli and Palestinian sides who are ready to engage each other and develop those dynamics. Kurtzer then emphasized a point that he and Dr. Beilin would repeat throughout the talk: the two-state solution is the best and only option available. They argued that a one-state solution would be unacceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians and that a three-state solution (dividing Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel into three states) or a Jordanian solution (allowing Jordan to annex the West Bank) would be equally rejected; the two-state formula is the only path that seems to even have a chance of working.


Dr. Beilin proceeded to propose a new solution for the conflict: a joint confederation in which state sovereignty for Israel and Palestine would technically be maintained, but mandating cooperation between the governments on important matters such as security and water sharing. Under this system, Dr. Beilin argued, Israeli settlers would become citizens of Palestine, subject to Palestinian laws, which would allow for the fulfillment of their religious ideals while giving full control of the West Bank territory to Palestine.


The panel was asked to respond to a question concerning power dynamics between Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. Mr. Kurtzer began by acknowledging Dr. Ashrawi’s accusation of lopsided U.S. support for Israel, claiming that, despite its original intentions, president Clinton’s administration ended up acting as “Israel’s lawyer.” He admitted that given that history of favoritism, the United States alone can no longer be trusted to mediate a fair resolution. Dr. Ashrawi added that American support has given successively more right-wing Israeli governments a blank cheque to exacerbate the issue, to the point that Palestinians who support a two-state solution have given up hope.


Dr. Beilin concluded that the peace process has failed but that there are no good alternatives to negotiations. He advocated for the removal of Israeli settlers from the Palestinian territories and another round of negotiations to settle the remaining issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. In the thirty years since the Madrid peace conference and the Oslo Accords’ failure, there has been no combination of leaders in Israel, Palestine, or the U.S. who have sincerely attempted to reach a negotiated two-state solution despite the political unpopularity of this process. Dr. Beilin lamented this and called for renewed diplomacy despite its failures in the past.


A few responses struck me as noteworthy from this panel. First, the accusation of Dr. Ashrawi that the United States too often takes the side of Israel was exemplified when Dr. Ashrawi denounced a negotiated settlement and Dr. Beilin and Mr. Kurtzer both maintained that “there is no better option.” I was also disappointed by the panelists’ inability to propose alternatives. For example, Dr. Ashrawi said that “a two-state solution is no longer available” while reflecting on Palestinian distrust of the negotiation process; however, she did not suggest any alternative to such a process. Mr. Kurtzer’s response to this was equally uninspiring: he discussed failed past frameworks for negotiation and how they were necessary for constructing future frameworks. Unfortunately, he did not suggest specifics to create a process that would be fundamentally different from the failed talks of the past. Only Dr. Beilin, who acknowledged the tediousness of diplomacy but argued for its necessity, and who, more importantly, proposed a real plan- that of Israeli-Palestinian confederation- was able to take the conversation in a new direction.


Ultimately, the panelists gave good insights into the diplomatic processes, successes, and failures of the Madrid peace conference. However, it was clear that the attitudes adopted by Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians toward the stalling of the overall peace process in the mid-1990s were carried on to the present day. The old grievances have carried on, with the same weight as they had three decades ago. Despite massive shifts in global politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for now at least, remains stuck in time.