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News Analysis: Five Years After Madrid, Hopes for Peace Displaced by Tension

Five years ago, the Bush administration cajoled Arab and Israeli leaders to participate in a landmark Middle East peace conference.

The 1991 gathering in Madrid opened the way to a direct Israeli dialogue with Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians that led to a changed Middle East.

The evolution of these talks during the past five years brought about Israeli- Palestinian mutual recognition, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from nearly all of the Gaza Strip and most Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, and set a framework for negotiating a permament settlement of the conflict.

Israel and Jordan embarked on a path of normalizing ties after signing a peace treaty, and other Arab countries moved toward establishing economic ties with the Jewish state.

But the gains in Arab-Israeli reconciliation stimulated by the Madrid Peace Conference now appear to be endangered by a shifting atmosphere that harkens back to the period before late 1991.

The fifth anniversary of the Madrid conference was marked this week by talks of possible war between Israel and Syria, paralysis of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and tension in the Israeli-Jordanian relationship.

Has the Middle East come full circle?

In 1991, Israel was led, as it is now, by a conservative Likud government that refused to accept language indicating that the basis of the peacemaking would be land for peace.

In the end, a way around the problem was found, by recourse to the constructively ambiguous U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

The question of Palestinian participation was similarly solved by resourceful diplomacy on the part of U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and his team, which included some of the U.S. officials who now are trying to the keep the Israel-Palestinian negotiations on course.

The issue then was that the Israeli government, under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, flatly refused to negotiate with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, then headquartered in Tunisia.

Then, too, a way was found to proceed: The Palestinian delegation was led by Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, a respected doctor from the Gaza Strip, and was composed of distinguished persons living in Gaza and the West Bank.

The Palestinian delegation took its orders from the PLO in Tunis, and made no secret of doing so.

But Shamir resolved to turn a blind eye to this. As a result, the committee- level negotiations that followed the formal conference opening were able to continue, sporadically, for several months.

But the negotiations, both on the Palestinian track and on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, went nowhere.

On the Palestinian front, Shafi’s “double life” — pretending to lead, but in fact looking to Tunis for instructions — made serious progress impossible.

The Israelis, for their part, maintained their implacable resistance to having any direct dealings with the PLO.

Israel maintained this position until almost a year into the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin, which took office in the summer of 1992.

It was Rabin’s readiness to break with this long-held policy that represented the most momentous shift, and paved the way to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accord hammered out in Norway.

For months, in fact, Rabin insisted that the Oslo channel must eventually merge with the ongoing, basically barren, “Madrid negotiations” that were taking place sporadically in Washington.

Eventually, however, Rabin dropped this position, and a historic deal was struck in the Norwegian capital without the Madrid-Washington negotiators even knowing that they had been rendered wholly anachronistic.

Was Oslo, then, a consequence of Madrid?

Can Yitzhak Shamir, who agreed to go to Madrid, share in the “credit” for Oslo?

Shamir himself, now out of active politics, insists that he cannot — and sees Oslo as no credit at all to any Israeli leader.

He maintains that his whole policy at Madrid was directed at keeping the PLO out, while Oslo brought it in.

But other observers, especially on the Labor side, claim that this is disingenuous — that Shamir knew all along that the Palestinians at Madrid were Arafat’s surrogates, yet he nevertheless agreed to negotiate with them.

There is a sense among some observers here that the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu looks back at Madrid with a certain longing, almost as though it wishes it could turn the clock back to that event five years ago.

After all, Israel under Shamir succeeded at Madrid in both acceding to the fervent international desire that a negotiating process be set in motion, while not actually making tangible concessions — either of territory or of its principled opposition to dealing with the PLO.

In government circles today, the feeling is that the Israeli-PLO accord destroyed Israel’s ability to maintain that posture; hence, Netanyahu’s current, reluctant negotiation with Arafat’s Palestinian Authority on the redeployment of Israeli forces in Hebron.

Among the opposition, Madrid is seen as a piece of history that is gone forever, overtaken and left far behind by the breakthrough in Oslo, which brought the PLO into the heart of the process — both here in Israel and at the negotiating table.

This is the reality, which cannot be turned back five years.

A similar argument also applies to the Syrian track.

Shamir claims today that he never agreed or intended to withdraw from all or indeed any of the Golan Heights — neither at Madrid itself nor in the subsequent negotiations with Syria.

If, as now seems clear, the late Rabin did so agree, this was a departure from Madrid, says Shamir, not a consequence or extension of it.

But, again, others argue that by agreeing to sit opposite the Syrians at Madrid, in the knowledge that they, and most of the international community, expected a land-for-peace deal on the Golan, Shamir was implicitly recognizing, or at least acquiescing to, the likelihood that land for peace would become the basic equation underlying subsequent peacemaking between Israel and Syria.

For now, the resurgence of Shamir’s posture in the approach of the Netanyahu government has diminished hopes of restarting the Israeli-Syrian talks that were suspended in March.

With Netanyahu as prime minister, Israel has in some respects already come full circle to the time in Madrid.

After all, Netanyahu, then Israel’s deputy foreign minister, served as the country’s top spokesman at the conference, facing off in countless television debates against the Palestinians’ highly effective spokesperson, Hanan Ashrawi.

Shamir himself left Madrid after a day and a half, and Netanyahu became the most senior Israeli in attendance.

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