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What was the Madrid peace conference in 1991?

When the Gulf War ended in 1991 with the defeat of Iraq and the U.S. triumphant and unchallenged across the Middle East, Washington turned towards redrawing the political map of the region. The goal reflected a continuation of the U.S. rationale for the war itself—Iraq's illegal invasion of Kuwait had provided a convenient pretext for the U.S. to lead the world to war to prove it remained a superpower even as the Cold War ended. Now it would prove it could orchestrate a regional peace the same way. And it would do so at a moment of terrible division in the Arab world, division rooted in Iraq's invasion of a fellow Arab country. Palestinian leaders had opposed the U.S. war build-up, as did most of the Arab street, and supported earlier attempts to bring about a joint Arab solution, but together with jordan, they refrained from supporting the US war effort; one result was the erosion of long-standing Arab support for Palestinian national rights, the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, the significant weakening of the Palestinian diplomatic position.

The Madrid peace conference was ostensibly under joint U.S.-Soviet invitation, but with the Soviet Union about to collapse, there was no question that Washington was in sole charge. Madrid was designed to look like the long-sought international peace conference—invitations were sent to the European Union, Japan, many Arab countries and more—but the glittering international gala provided only the ceremonial opening to the actual negotiations. And those were—as Israel had long demanded—separate bilateral talks between Israel and each of its Arab interlocutors, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

It was only within the confines of the Israel-Jordan talks that the Palestinians were even included; they were denied the right to participate as a separate delegation, but only as a sub-set of the Jordanian team. Israel also had won U.S. agreement accepting Israel's severe restrictions on who could negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians.

Madrid was very much an American initiative. President George Bush Senior, opening the conference, said its aim was to achieve a "just, lasting, and comprehensive peace" in the Middle East, not simply to end the state of war and replace it with a state of non-belligerency. Bush identified his goals as peace treaties, security, trade, economic relations, investment, "even tourism." Significantly, he did not speak of justice, ending occupation, or Palestinian independence at goals to be fought for or protected in the context of the Madrid talks.

Bush's plan called for five years of Palestinian "self-government," in the third year of which negotiations would begin for a final resolution of the status of the occupied territories, very close to the Oslo formula that would later replace the Madrid process. He claimed that this "self-government" would "give the Palestinian people meaningful control of their own lives," while taking into account Israeli security." Bush appropriated Israel's own formula, describing how Palestinians under "self-rule" would be allowed to control their own lives, but there was no change in maintaining Israel's control of the land. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev focused primarily on the international context for the peace conference, and described Middle East peace in words that evoked Dr. Martin Luther King—defining peace as "not merely the cessation of war, but of moving towards justice." His country, however, would disappear from the map less than two months later, and his words had little relevance.

After the ceremonies in Madrid, the diplomats got down to work in bilateral talks based in Washington. A parallel set of multi-lateral talks on issues such as refugees, water, and economic development brought together much broader governmental participation, including Canada, Japan, the European Union, first in an opening conference in Moscow in January 1992, followed by separate meetings in scattered capitals.

The various sets of talks plodded along in fits and starts for the next 18 months or so. Little progress was made, and frustrations grew higher.The impasse involved two principal issues: Israel's refusal to come to terms with its role as occupier, and to make any commitment to stop building the illegal settlements. As months passed, and Palestinian and Israeli diplomats returned to State Department conference rooms for round after round of fruitless diplomacy, a growing realization emerged that Madrid was failing. The PLO, faced with the simultaneous task of orchestrating the officially non-PLO diplomatic team in the Madrid process while trying to provide international grounding to the continuing intifada going on at home. Developments were getting dire, and it was in that period of Madrid's stalemate that the secret back-channel Oslo talks began.

The urgency of the PLO may also have been rooted in the organization's growing understanding of the U.S. role. Round 10 of the Madrid talks collapsed over the issue of Jerusalem. Prior to that round, some hope had lingered among at least some of the Palestinian diplomats that the Clinton administration would stake out a position rooted in its claimed commitment to human rights—rather than in its well-known close ties to Israel. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher not only accepted the legitimacy of Israel's position (that occupied Arab Jerusalem be excluded from the interim Palestinian authority) but demanded that the Palestinians sign a "joint statement of principles" based on that position, the Palestinians realized they could not hope for an even-handed sponsor in Washington, and the talks collapsed. The loss of that hoped—for U.S. role, and the resulting recognition that Madrid was a failure, may have set the stage for a new level of Palestinian urgency in the Oslo talks.