During the run up to the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, Israel was recovering from the drastic effects of the First Intifada as well as the fallout from its participation in the Iran-Contra affair. Through all this, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was leading the most conservative government in Israel’s history (later to be challenged by the current leadership.) Central to Shamir’s political platform was a complete rejection of the internationally accepted land-for-peace idea that was central to the peace deal with Israel and enshrined in several UN resolutions, specifically 242 and 338. Indeed, Shamir was open about his stance concerning the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights: never would they be returned and Israel would never concede any more territory.
The result of Shamir’s hardline rejectionism was a desire to make peace with his Arab neighbor’s without conceding anything – in other words, to make peace impossible. Nonetheless, Shamir was put under considerable pressure from then US President Bush to join the Madrid Conference. As the Soviet Union was standing on its last legs at the time, the Arab regimes were quick to accept the invitation to the conference in order to gain favor with the Americans. Shamir, on the other hand, dragged his feet considerably.
A quick look back shows that the Palestinian negotiating team preformed admirably, firmly displaying the evolution of the PLO strategy from violent resistance to peaceful means of coexistence. Israel, under the hardline Shamir, showed a confrontational, distrustful and general aversion to peace. Unfortunately, the comparison of the Madrid Conference to the current round of failing negotiations is far too striking.
[tweetmeme] As mentioned above, Shamir’s government was notable in its extreme conservatism. After the elections of 1990, Shamir put together a coalition of Likud, religious and ultra religious parties whose common ideological denominator was the concept of Eretz Israel – the right of Israel to Greater Israel and the rejection of Palestinian self-determination. Headed by Shamir, the government also included Ariel Sharon – who was the most prominent proponent of using military force around the Middle East – as well as Rehavam Ze’Evi – who actively promoted the ‘transfer’ (see: ethnic cleansing) of Palestinians from the West Bank and Israel. Israel committed to the Madrid Conference only through intense American pressure (Bush threatened to withhold significant aid) and with the confidence that the negotiations would lead nowhere.
The current Israeli administration surpasses the conservatism of Shamir’s government. Prime Minister Netanyahu, like Shamir, has traditionally held the view that Palestinians were living on Israeli land – though he has, at least rhetorically, conceded the need for a Palestinian state under immense international pressure. Moreover, the current Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, sounds like Ze’evi in his calls for illegal population transfers. Likud has reduced Labor to a doormat while embracing the religious and settler parties that occupy the extreme right of the political spectrum. Consequently, the entire political spectrum as shifted to the right, leading to loyalty oaths, increased settler terrorism and institutionalized racism.
In 1991,like today, the most contentious issue surrounding the Madrid Conference was perhaps Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank. Concerning the settlement issue, Avi Shlaim writes:
Much more fundamental was the issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. To give the peace talks a chance, Israel’s government was urged on all sides to halt the building of settlements and new housing. Government spokesmen replied that the demand for a freeze on settlement activity during the peace talks constituted a precondition… Settlement activity was not just incompatible with the peace process; it was intended to wreck it. At a crucial point in the run-up to Madrid, Israeli officials announced plans for a new wave of building calculated to double the Jewish population in the occupied territories in four years (p. 486).
Clearly, the Israeli strategy has not developed much in the last twenty years. And who can blame them? The settlement construction and the hardline approach of Shamir and his coalition partners killed the chance for peace at Madrid. Likewise, Netanyahu has put the current talks on life support by using the exact same tactics. Shamir did not want peace with the Palestinians and neither does Netanyahu.
Perhaps a major difference between the Madrid Conference and the current talks is the amount of international criticism surrounding Israel’s disregard for international law (the flotilla, the strangulation of Gaza, war crimes in Operation Cast Lead, the Dubai assassination, continued settlement activity…). In addition to increased civilian activism domestically and internationally, Israel has faced considerable international pressure from various governments to moderate its stance. Recently, a synod of Bishops was organized to discuss the future of Christians in the Middle East. The synod concluded its meetings by roundly condemning Israel for its occupation and discriminatory policies, stating that the country shouldn’t use the Bible to justify ‘injustices’ against the Palestinians.
The intervention of the Vatican in the current Palestinian-Israeli relations lends yet another depressing reminder of the failures of the Madrid Conference. The pope during the Conference, Pope John Paul II, maintained “that there were two possible solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict: the realistic and the miraculous. The realistic solution involved divine intervention; the miraculous solution, a voluntary agreement between the parties themselves (p. 484-5).” Unfortunately, like in Madrid, international pressure does not seem capable of reviving the moribund peace talks. By using the same tactics as Shamir, it seems as though Netanyahu is once again making divine intervention the most likely means for peace.
Photo from Time