By Khaled Diab
US President George W Bush's call for an international peace conference later this year has rightly been met with greater scepticism than its predecessor, the 1991 Madrid Conference. Although his father seems to be an important role model, when Bush Snr invaded Iraq or called a peace conference he did both as a relatively respected member of the international community.
But is another international conference really what we need? Well, a good place to begin when deciding this is to cast our minds back 16 years and review the outcome of the first one. Owing to its massive symbolic value - the first ever gathering of Arab and Israeli leaders in a single forum - many remember it fondly today. But the actual concerete outcomes of the conference were almost non-existent and the proceedings were farcical.
"God was about the only personality who received a clean bill of health at the start of the Madrid peace conference," writes acclaimed British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilisation. "If clichés could produce peace, the last shots would already have been fired in the Middle East."
Fisk, who attended the conference, saw his incredulity rise: "At times, it seemed as if degrees of suffering rather than legitimacy were supposed to deliver peace."
Describing the scene unfolding before him, he writes:
The 1st of November 1991 became Madrid's day of rage. The mullahs in Tehran, who that very week had organised their own 'day of rage' against the Middle East talks in Madrid, must have loved it. Saddam Hussein may have been tempted to uncork a magnum. For inside the banqueting hall of the Palacio Real, the last day of the first session of the peace conference was little more than a disgrace. Had I not been there, I would never have understood the nature of the venom the Arabs and Israelis displayed towards each other. It was not so much the mutal accusations of 'terrorism' that created so shameful a spectacle. It was not the extraordinary decision of the Israeli prime minister [Yitzhak Shamir] to stomp out after making the first speech because, he claimed, he wanted to return to Israel by the Sabbath. Nor was it the Syrian foreign minister's [Farouq al-Shara'a] decision to brandish an old British mandate poster of a young Jewish 'terrorist' called Yitzhak Shamir. It was because the Israelis and Arabs used the peace conference to talk about war.
The only person who seemed to have a sense of the purpose of the conference and tried to move ahead pragmatically was the head of the Palestinian delegation, Haidar Abdel-Shafie who, Fisk says, "emerged with credit, still pleading for an end to Jewish settlements, accepting Israel's need for security".
Any 2007 peace conference looks set to repeat the worst errors of its 1991 predecessor - including the absence of a clear agenda and the exclusion of the most significant Palestinian faction (then Fatah/PLO, today Hamas) - without the redeeming grace of being a groundbreaking gathering which raised very genuine hopes of a resolution.
Writing in The Washington Post, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab sounded a weary note: "I and many other Palestinians are much more sceptical now. Attending the Madrid conference felt essential, but the importance of summits has diminished as such forums have failed to produce results."
"The transcripts of conferences, peace initiatives, lofty speeches and UN agreements aimed at resolving the conflict could fill rooms," he noted.
Yossi Beilin, who was part of the Israeli delegation to the Madrid conference, said the time was not yet ripe for a peace conference. He suggested that the only point of holding one would be to bring together leaders who would otherwise not meet or to give an existing pact international backing.
"This conference does neither this nor that," he told Israel radio. This is particulalry the case, since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has so far evaded the Arab peace offer extended to him a few months ago.
"What we need, as suggested in the Arab peace initiative and a number of Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives, is an agreed-upon final status - something like the 1967 borders - and the process to implement terms that will be agreed to by all parties. Otherwise, future summits will continue to fail," Kuttab concluded.
And for such final status negotiations to succeed at a peace conference would require something that few politicians seem committed to implementing: true popular involvement. Far more productive than an international conference would be a bilateral gathering - mediated by the international community - in which the Israeli and Palestinian government meet, as well as representatives of all factions on both sides, from the peace lobby to the settler community to the Islamists and Jewish fundamentalists, not to mention the Palestinian diaspora. This Madrid for the people should be followed up with a referendum to endorse its findings.
©Khaled Diab. Text and images.