In Madrid We Trusted
As a teenager growing up in Vienna, Austria, at the time, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s is clearly enshrined in my memory as the single most significant historical event. Characterised by the dawn of a “new world order,” that period had reshaped the balance of power among nations and set the governing dynamics of what followed from regional and global events (and tragedies) until the present day. Meanwhile, as a Palestinian, first and foremost, I also recall that the winds of change had unmistakably stormed in another direction, one that is closer to home, and closer to heart. It was on 30 October, 1991, that the Madrid Peace Conference was convened, and consequently the assertion of our national aspirations for the first time since Al-Nakba on the largest possible scale. Within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this, in itself, was as historic as the end of the Cold War.
Today, more than 15 years after Madrid, Palestinians find themselves desperately trapped between the evident threat of internal strife and a prolonged Israeli occupation that has multiplied in form and magnitude since 1991. At the merciless hand of time, the dream of an independent and truly viable Palestinian state has become a distant and vague object in our rear view mirror.
National disunity, particularly following the second Palestinian Legislative Council elections of January 2006, has transcended political collisions between Fateh and Hamas and is increasingly following the catastrophic pattern of head-on militaristic confrontation, at the tragic expense of Palestinian blood. Israel, on its part, continues to relentlessly colonise what is left of Palestine (the territories it illegally occupies since the June 1967 war), through the imprisonment of the Gaza Strip and settlement construction and expansion, the construction of its Annexation Wall, and enforcement of demographic alterations in the West Bank, thereby creating irreversible realities on the ground and pre-empting the outcome of final status negotiations, let alone diminishing the prospects of their resumption altogether.
Ultimately, Palestinians have become diplomatically and economically isolated, politically marginalised, and scarce with optimism regarding the realisation of peace, and liberation.
It was therefore with a sense of bitterness, and somewhat a longing for the past that Palestinians consumed the Madrid + 15 conference, which was held earlier this week with the participation of representatives from Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, in addition to European and US dignitaries. The conference was concluded on Friday with a decision to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process during the first half of 2007, and a renewed commitment to the two-state solution as the only viable option to end the conflict.
However, it is more than nostalgia that attracts Palestinian attention to the Madrid + 15 conference. The peace process launched in 1991, which preceded the doomed Oslo Accords, was founded on a rational interpretation of the causes of conflict, with clear reference to the legality and legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations. It also addressed Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a holistic reality, as opposed to what followed through the Oslo Accords; namely a set of secluded agreements on fragmented technicalities (crossings, borders, security, prisoners, etc).
Perhaps most importantly, it was the elements which constituted the momentum of the Palestinian position in the first Madrid conference that guaranteed the relative, albeit short-lived, success of the process altogether. These are two-fold:
1) Palestinian national unity and the popular-institutional base which endorsed negotiations was a catalyst for the validity of the Madrid Peace Conference. As opposed to the secrecy that underlined the Oslo negotiations, in isolation from any accountability and scrutiny before Palestinian public opinion, Madrid was carried out in a spirit of transparency and openness, which ensured wide Palestinian support.
2) Blessed with the (then-exiled) PLO’s support, the composition of the Palestinian delegation to Madrid included prominent leaders from within the occupied territories, who possessed both first-hand knowledge of the issues at hand and credibility among the Palestinian public. It was university professors, civil society leaders, and activists like Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, and the late Faisal Al-Husseini, among others who spearheaded the Palestinians’ first departure from armed resistance towards political dialogue in confronting their occupiers. It seemed as the ultimate moment of triumph, as ex-political prisoners and fugitive grassroots leaders were now sitting face-to-face with their oppressors, as equals.
It is hoped that the declarations of all parties to the latest conference in Spain will eventually materialise in the coming months and penetrate the corridors of power; indeed, if this is the case, then it is only in Madrid that we may trust again.
Rami Bathish is director of the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). He can be contacted at email@example.com