Reaching Across the Divide

In their second exchange of letters, two of the Middle East's most respected journalists, Akiva Eldar of Haaretz and Salameh Nematt of Al Hayat, discuss developments in the region.

Dear Salameh,

By the time this letter - the second in our correspondence - has been published, I will have returned from Madrid, where an extraordinary event was scheduled to take place on January 10-12. I am writing just before the conference. Civil society representatives from Arab countries and Israel are arriving in the Spanish capital with one common goal - to return the hope for peace to our region. They are not coming to negotiate borders or to solve the refugee problem.

Hopefully no one will use this opportunity for mutual recriminations or for scoring points with local or international public opinion. The guests from Ramallah, Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem accepted the invitation, issued by the NGOs sponsoring this conference, out of a sense of anxiety over the future of the Middle East.

Members of parliament have taken time off from their duties in order to send to their own people, and to the people of neighboring countries, this message from Madrid: "There are partners for peace."

Former prime ministers, foreign ministers and retired senior officers are taking the trouble to come to Spain in order to contribute their talent and experience to this attempt to revive the spirit of Madrid 1991.

My dear Salameh, you are just as familiar as I am with the cynics - including our colleagues - who will dismiss the Madrid+15 conference. They will say, and rightly so, that this meeting has no political clout and that statements issued there have no practical value. True, the invitations to the first Madrid conference were highly official. The sponsors were the U.S. secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister, and the delegates were the official representatives of Middle Eastern countries.

But from my point of view, as both a peace lover and a political analyst, there is a large and significant difference between Madrid 1991, which I covered for Haaretz, and Madrid 2007. While in 1991 Israel had to be dragged there almost by force, today a jumbo plane could have been filled with Israeli personalities competing for a place in the meeting halls, and many still would have been left behind.

These are not the usual left-wing suspects you meet at every peace seminar. The Israeli delegation - and those who stayed at home - includes people who believed fifteen years ago that nothing was more important than land and building a Jewish settlement on every hilltop. They saw the [first] Madrid conference as a forum for international pressure on Israel, to force it to relinquish territories they believed it had an absolute right to keep - in exchange for a peace they did not believe in, or which they believed Israel could exist without.

I vividly recall the response of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir when he read my report in Haaretz that president Hafez Assad was about to accept secretary of state James Baker's suggestion to send a Syrian delegation to an international conference on peace in the Middle East. Shamir, who assumed Assad would decline the invitation, thus extricating him from the conference as well, instructed his spokesman to deny the story, hoping the trouble would simply disappear.

Dear Salameh, my hope that time actually serves the cause of peace has to do with two members of the Israeli delegation to Madrid 2007 - Dan Meridor and Roni Milo. Both were ministers in Shamir's government; both were senior right-wing politicians.

For many years, Meridor followed his father - one of the leaders of the Irgun and a founder of [the right-wing party] Herut. Milo followed the footsteps of his uncle Menachem Begin, and was considered an enemy of the Israeli left. Both have given up on the dream of a Greater Israel, and have replaced it with the dream of peace. They are not alone.

Over the past years, we have seen a clear movement of political "princes" from the right to the left. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chair Tzachi Hanegbi, were born in Revisionist homes. All three have abandoned the Likud, and together with Shimon Peres, the architect of Oslo, they created the Kadima party. I know of no Israeli political prince who has moved in the opposite direction.

And yet, dear Salameh, according to the polls, if there is no dramatic turning point soon in our relationship - with our neighbors in particular and in the region in general - power will return to those who follow Shamir's path. Just as the first Gulf War strengthened the pragmatic coalition in the Middle East and paved the way for the Madrid Conference, the profound crisis in Iraq, which strengthens religious zealots - Sunnis and Shi'ites - has turned the spirit of Madrid into badly needed oxygen.

I was glad to read the prominent item about Madrid+15 in your newspaper Al Hayat, written by your colleague from Damascus. I hope many of our journalist friends, in Israel and throughout the Arab world, will find the good news we all need and long for in Madrid this week.

Akiva Eldar is a senior columnist for Haaretz.

Dear Akiva,

Like you, I covered Madrid 1991 for my newspaper. At the time, there was a sense of optimism in the air, despite the theatrics from all sides. What I felt was most significant about Madrid 1991 is that, despite both the Israeli and Arab spin as to the interpretation of the conference's reference point for peace negotiations, there was a near universal agreement that talks should be at least based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

Ever since, nearly all peace initiatives, including the road map, have referred to these resolutions as the basis for a settlement. The resilience of these nearly 40-year-old resolutions stems from the fact that they are the only internationally accepted legal perimeters for a resolution of the conflict.

Furthermore, despite Israel's insistence on its own unique interpretation of these resolutions − that Resolution 242 spoke of an Israeli withdrawal from "territories" rather than "the territories" occupied in the 1967 war − the principle itself, as demonstrated in the "land for peace" formula adopted in reaching the peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, survived.

The reason why I'm referring to 242 is that I'm reminded of a speech made in Madrid by then-secretary of state James Baker, a key architect of the 1991 conference, in which he stated that the exercise at hand was about negotiating "the implementation" of resolution 242, rather than discussing the principle itself.

This point received little attention at the time, and subsequent American statements tended to fudge the issue, referring instead to peace negotiations "on the basis" of that resolution.

Ironically, the Palestinian side at the time, led by the PLO, insisted that 242 on its own was not enough, as it did not address the Palestinian people's right to self-determination, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the resolution to the problem of Palestinian refugees enshrined in a separate UN resolution. But the Israelis and the Palestinians agreed to talk, and it looked like some kind of compromise could be worked out.

The reason why I write this, dear Akiva, is because I don't believe that it is possible to launch peace negotiations between two or more warring parties without a principled agreement on the legal perimeters and reference points that let both sides know where they stand and where they?re heading. The late King Hussein used to say that both sides need to see a light at the end of the tunnel before they can decide to enter the tunnel.

Four decades have passed since 1967 and the resolutions that followed, but the Palestinians and their leaders have not been able to accept a settlement that would give them much less than what international law has suggested is their right: regaining the lands lost to Israel in the 1967 war.

Granted, the Palestinians have shown willingness to be flexible regarding the implementation, in order to accommodate changes on the ground over the past decades; many embrace Henry Kissinger's call for the implementation of 242 "with minor border rectifications on a reciprocal basis"; but they have never abandoned the principle of "land for peace" as endorsed by most parties to the conflict.

This is why reviving the spirit of Madrid 1991 requires us to remember what this conflict was all about to begin with, and what peace talks are supposed to be all about as well. Short of that, we would be holding negotiations about holding negotiations, which is not likely to get us anywhere. Both sides have inflicted a lot of pain and suffering on each other, and a lot of pain and suffering on their own people in the process.

Before the Palestinians gave up on their pro-peace government and elected the anti-peace camp, having given up on that government's ability to regain their rights through peaceful means, the Israelis also grew disillusioned with their own government's failure in voting for the hardliners seeking a settlement by force.

This has failed for both sides. While it is encouraging that there is an increasing realization in Israel and Palestine that the use of force is not a viable option, we need to revisit Madrid 1991 to see where we went wrong. Is it the incremental approach that was supposed to bring confidence and ended up eroding it, or is it the minority on both sides that fears peace and always succeeds in undermining it for the majority? Perhaps Madrid+15 can provide some answers. Good luck!

Salameh Nematt is a political analyst writing for Al Hayat International Arab newspaper.