The 30th Anniversary of the Conference That Could Have Changed the Middle East

Secret meetings of Israelis with Jordan's King Hussein, peace activists' pleas to the Palestinian leaders to attend and sensitive intel on Assad achieved the first open meeting of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians

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Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir at the Madrid Conference in 1991.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir at the Madrid Conference in 1991. Credit: Yaacov Saar/GPO
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Dan Meridor remembers well his meeting with the head of Israel’s Military Intelligence, Uri Sagi, in 1991. It was during this meeting that Sagi told him Syrian President Hafez Assad was interested in diplomatic talks with Israel. “Assad was considered a sworn enemy until that time,” Meridor recalls.

“Shortly after the Persian Gulf War I met with Uri Sagi [former head of the IDF's Military Intelligence]. He said that in his opinion, Assad was ready for a diplomatic process. It went against the majority view. He showed me the intelligence. I told him, ‘Go talk with [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir’," Meridor told Haaretz.

Meridor, who was justice minister and had close relations with the prime minister at the time, knew that Shamir was against a diplomatic process with Syria and would not agree to any diplomatic concessions.

“But Shamir was also a realist who never shut his eyes to reality,” Meridor said. “He had great respect for professionals. Sagi told him that Israel must hold negotiations with Syria now."

With this information, Shamir understood that if the Syrians were willing to negotiate, a conference would have to take place.

At the time, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was working hard to spark a diplomatic process between Israel and Arab states. The cooperation between the U.S. and Syria in the attack on Iraq, and Israel’s restraint in the face of rocket fire from Iraq, led the George H.W. Bush administration to advance the move.

Israel, however, debated whether to take part in a regional peace conference and was not keen on letting a Palestinian representation participate as an independent delegation.

King Hussein of Jordan in Amman, in 1996. Credit: AP

The political leadership in Israel also vetoed the idea of inviting PLO members to take part as representatives of the Palestinians. Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein and deputy Mossad Director Efraim Halevy were sent to Jordan for a series of meetings with King Hussein in a bid to find a solution.

A visit by an Israeli delegation to Jordan, prior to any peace treaty was considered a dramatic event. “Going to Amman was a novelty,” Rubinstein, who went on to become attorney general and later deputy president of Israel’s Supreme Court, recalls in a conversation with Haaretz.

“In fact, we were, perhaps, the pioneers of visits to Amman. Efraim Halevy and I began secret trips to Jordan to meet King Hussein and his brother, Prince Hassan. We did it a few times in spring-summer 1991. I won’t go into details about how we got there,” he says.

“There were long conversations,” Rubinstein recalls. “We’d go in the morning and return the next day. It was interesting and presumably also helpful,” he adds. The parties discussed preparations for the conference. “We didn’t yet know that it would take place in Madrid.

We discussed issues that would top the conference agenda and the Palestinians' representation there. According to Rubinstein, “Hussein was a very pleasant man in a personal sense. His brother, Prince Hassan, knew a little biblical Hebrew from his studies at Oxford University.”

The prince even wrote a dedication in Hebrew, ‘Peace, peace, to him that is far off and to him that is near,’ [Isaiah 57:19] in a book he gave Rubinstein.

At the end of the talks, it was agreed that the Palestinian delegation would sit in the conference room as part of the Jordanian delegation.

PLO officials were not allowed to participate in the discussions, but the Israeli representatives knew full well that the organization’s leaders were expected to hold frantic phone conversations from Tunis with the Palestinian representation at the sessions.

Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in Paris, in 1998. Credit: AP

Shortly before the conference began, peace activists attempted to disarm potential “land mines” that could disrupt the gathering of the conference. One of those was a protest by Palestinians about the decision to bar the PLO from representing them there.

“We, in Peace Now, met with the Palestinian leaders in the eastern part of [Jerusalem], at the home of Faisal Husseini, who had been invited to the conference,” recalls Prof. Galia Golan, a former leader of Peace Now, in a conversation with Haaretz.

“We tried to convince them that it was important that they attend. We proposed that the organizations' representatives would sit in a nearby room or on the phone and guide matters, and that's what eventually happened. The Palestinians were constantly on the phone with the PLO in Tunis,” she says.

The conference began October 30, 1991, and permitted Israel to conduct concurrent talks with each of the delegations, both separately and jointly.

The head of the Palestinian delegation, Haider Abdel Shafi, gave a speech that included more than a few messages delivered by Israeli peace activists in the preparatory talks, in an effort to soften Israeli opposition to his remarks.

“I remember hearing the speech and thinking that we influenced it,” Golan recalls. “It was a charming speech. I saw in it things they learned in the talks with us about what could and couldn’t be said to Israelis. It was a very conciliatory speech. [Abdel Shafi] spoke about Palestinian suffering, the occupation and the settlements.

"But at the same time," Golan adds, "when he spoke about the Holocaust, he didn’t do so in order to compare us with the Nazis, but rather in order to acknowledge the suffering of the Jews in the past.

"He talked about the refugees who were expelled in 1967 and not [the ones] from 1948, he talked about two equal states, mentioned the Israeli peace camp and the demonstration we held together with the Palestinians – Hands Around Jerusalem,” Golan recalls.

On Tuesday, the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will hold a conference marking 30th anniversary of the Madrid Conference.

Prof. Rubinstein, who headed the Israeli delegation for the talks with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation in Madrid, feels the conference was much more important than perceived. 

“The Madrid Conference has not been granted its proper place in history,” he told Haaretz. “It was the first table around which  Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians sat openly. There were a lot of meetings before that: In the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, but this time – symbolized by the photograph of me shaking hands with my Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts – a new era began, diplomatically open, in frameworks of negotiations that never existed before.” 

The conference did not lead to an agreement between Israel and Syria. The negotiations with the Jordanians and the Palestinians also underwent further incarnations for a few years – before they ripened into agreements.

Meridor, today the chairman of the board of trustees of the Truman Institute, said: “If you look at the negotiations with Syria, they failed. They came, sat and nothing came out of it. But [Yitzhak] Rabin also conducted negotiations with Syria and later Ehud Barak and Netanyahu. That failed too. It could very well be that the parties were too far apart in their positions.”

The Madrid Conference was an important link in the “process of accepting Israel,” whose end – as of now – is the Abraham Accords with the Gulf states and Morocco, said Meridor.

“Since 1967, the main milestone was the huge breakthrough of Begin and Sadat. After that came the Oslo Accords, which I wasn’t in favor of. After that the agreement between Rabin and [King] Hussein.” 

Prof. Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, the head of the Truman Institute, says it is actually the coronavirus pandemic and other environmental issues that trouble the nations of the Middle East, that justify the convening of a similar regional conference in the near future.

“Look at the Madrid Conference: It may have been forgotten from the collective memory, but it represents an example that processes that no one thought were possible – happened.

And now," Vinitzky-Seroussi adds, "when the entire world is revolving around two global crises: The climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, a regional conference is required by the situation and its challenges.

The virus does not know borders and the climate also refuses to recognize historical conflicts. The Abraham Accords are welcome, but they are not a replacement for a solution to our conflict, and maybe the Gulf states, or Rabat in Morocco, can be the next Madrid.

The [Truman] Institute believes that the present government headed by Bennett and with American support can, and needs to advance the new Madrid Conference,” said Vinitzky-Seroussi.

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