Yet the Israeli public memory of the 1991 Madrid Conference, to the extent that it exists, often centers on the searing speeches delivered by Israeli and Arab speakers, speeches that do not resemble the news of peace that emerged after the rise to power of Yitzhak Rabin. in 1992. Israelis who participated in the conference even like to recall stories of bravery about interrupting the speeches of Syrian speakers with a loud bang of spoons against glasses.
Indeed, the Madrid Conference is worth remembering, but in a different light. There is much to learn from him about advancing peace initiatives, and some lessons are relevant to our times: how global and regional changes create new opportunities for diplomacy and conflict resolution; how a determined US administration can overcome stiff objections and plot an international advance toward peace; how a stubborn right-wing Israeli leader can be persuaded to participate in an event contrary to his worldview and how Arab states can show their willingness to engage with Israel even before granting him official recognition.
This year, the multilateral aspect of the Madrid Conference takes on special relevance for the collective memory of the event. Multilateralism has become a buzzword in international diplomatic discourse in recent years. It denotes the combined action of several countries to achieve certain joint objectives. The multilateral discourse gained strength as a counterweight to former President Donald Trump and his isolationist approach towards the rest of the world. France and Germany formed the Alliance for Multilateralism, which was joined by 70 countries (Israel was not among them), calling for shared solutions to global problems. The intensification of the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic fueled the understanding that the challenges facing humanity require international partnerships. This, in turn, sparked growing international calls to strengthen existing multilateral institutions (led by the UN) and establish new ones, governmental and non-governmental alike.
The Madrid Conference was perhaps the first time that Israel enjoyed the fruits of multilateralism. The conference led to the establishment of two negotiation channels: one bilateral and the other multilateral. On the bilateral channel, Israel conducted futile separate negotiations with its neighbors, while the real breakthrough was achieved in parallel clandestine talks taking place in Oslo. The multilateral talks were more helpful. About three months after the Madrid Conference, a follow-up conference in Moscow decided to establish five working groups in fields of mutual interest to the countries of the region and the international community: environment, arms control and regional security, water resources , regional. and economic development and refugees. The working groups met regularly until Rabin’s assassination and also attended by countries with which Israel did not have, and does not have to this day, diplomatic relations.
The multilateral process did not survive the obstacles posed in the peace process, although to this day, a regional water framework established within those talks remains active in Oman. In 1997, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, the Arab League decided to freeze the multilateral talks, contrary to the position of the United States and Russia. An international attempt in 2000 to renovate them, prior to the Camp David summit, failed. Fifteen years after the conference, international civil society organizations spearheaded a reenactment of the event, and 19 years after the conference was convened, MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) asked the US for style lecture to return. to direct negotiations. Other symposia and events on the Madrid Conference have been held over the years, and are also taking place this year, but overall, the Madrid Conference and the conversations it generated have largely faded into oblivion.
The 30th anniversary of the Madrid Conference could symbolize a change, especially as conditions seem ripe for launching a new regional framework for multilateral talks. “The seeds of the Abrahamic Accords were sown in the Madrid process,” President Isaac Herzog said at a recent Truman Institute conference at the Hebrew University. In fact, ties between Israel and the Arab states have come a long way recently: relations with other states have been established and even countries that have not yet normalized relations with Israel might be interested in participating in a joint working group with him. . Israel, for its part, is taking steps under the leadership of its new government to adopt and implement a multilateral approach. Israel is much less deterred today by multilateral frameworks than in the past, and increasingly assumes a leadership role in them, in the fields of diplomacy, security, energy, environment, public health and more, which shows the desire to improve Israeli participation. in multilateral frameworks and organizations.
The memory and lessons of the Madrid Conference could assist the new Israeli government in its efforts to broaden the circle of normalization with the Arab states, improve Israel’s international standing, and strengthen its role in contributing to global problems. But as we take note of the Madrid Conference and the fruits of its multilateral approach, it is also important to remember that the long-term success of a genuine and comprehensive regional process depends on a context in which Israeli-Palestinian peace is also advancing. .
The writer is the president and founder of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policy, a faculty member of the Hebrew University, and a faculty member of the Syracuse University Program for the Advancement of Conflict Research and Collaboration.