When Hanan Ashrawi arrived at the Madrid Peace Conference twenty years ago, she was well aware that what was about to unfold was a hard and long negotiating process that should – there were no guarantees for her to think “would” – lead to a just and comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian cause. Little did she, or for that matter other leading members of the Palestinian delegation, know.
The beginning of the talks were indeed tough, for the Israeli occupier was in no way going to the Madrid Peace Conference to make peace – but rather to negotiate peace. But the stumbling block for the efforts of the Palestinian delegation was not exactly a by-product of the Israeli stance but rather a joint Palestinian-Israeli scheme that materialised two years after the launch of the Madrid Peace Conference under the name of the “Oslo Accords”, a secretly negotiated agreement for the management rather than the resolution of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories after the 1967 war.
In a late summer day in 1993, Ashrawi and the rest of the Palestinian negotiating team were summoned for a meeting in Tunis with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and Mahmoud Abbas, a leading PLO figure who now carries the assumed title of “Palestinian President”.
What Ashrawi saw there was "shocking," as she recalls in an interview given to Ahram Online by phone on 30 October.
"It was a text full of flaws and loopholes; it was a text that avoided the tough issues that the Madrid Peace Conference allowed us to negotiate like Jerusalem and the refugees, and worked instead on a set of functional matters," Ashrawi remembered with a sigh. She would have wanted at least the poor text of the Oslo Accords that Palestinians and Israelis "had already initiated" with Norwegian mediation "but I was told it was too late and that the text cannot be undone or re-negotiated".
For Ashrawi that day was basically the end of the peace process as launched by the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. And what the Palestinian and Israelis are grappling with today is the leftover of the Oslo Accords rather than the negotiations of the Madrid Peace Conference.
Twenty years ago, Ashrawi was hopeful for a fair settlement to the dilemma of her people, which started with a UN decree for the partition of historic Palestine into two states, one for the Palestinians and another for the Jewish people.
To attend the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, the Palestinians received an invitation in their capacity as “the Palestinians” and not the PLO or any other format, because all was still unrecognized. Still, there was a sense of hope.
"At the time we were ahead of a real peace initiative that was designed to build confidence, to present our own narrative and to challenge the occupation," she recalled.
The Madrid Peace Conference, Ashrawi added, brought about "tremendous expectations; it was a breakthrough".
Ashrawi was of the opinion, as she told Arafat at the time, that it would take no less than ten years for the Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate a real peace deal out of the Madrid process. Two years later, ahead of the September 1993 signing at the White House of the Oslo Accords, she again reminded him that while the Madrid process was the long and hard road towards a deal, it was a trusted road as opposed to the Oslo package which worked on the preferential matters and "could either lead to statehood or to disaster."
Today, Ashrawi finds little to explain why it was a disaster that came out of the Oslo Accords that undid the Madrid process. The Oslo process that eventually replaced the Madrid process postponed the main and real issues while it separated the Palestinian land and people.
"Arafat thought it was a door opening, but I knew you cannot presuppose the innocence of the occupier," Ashrawi said.
Israel, which was faced with tough questions in the Madrid process, ended up, as Ashrawi said, exploiting every single loophole in the Oslo Accords to tighten its annexation of Jerusalem and to subject the old holy city to "ethnic cleansing" by demolishing Palestinian houses, and confiscating Palestinian land and Palestinians identity cards.
And today, the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories has increased dramatically – beyond repair.
"When we went to Madrid we had a real hope and a real will to extract our rights, but today we ended up with a basically abstract political exercise," Ashrawi lamented.
Israel has had its way and today it is enjoying a shocking impunity "with a clear US collusion", as Ashrawi noted. "It is tragic what has happened."
The prominent Palestinian female politician, who for the years prior to Oslo Accords was the voice of her own people's cry for fairness, now sees no use in trying to wake the dead – the peace process as it has been unfolding since the Oslo Accords. It would simply lead to more Israeli illusiveness, she argued.
However, Ashrawi stated, now is the time to call on the world to come together in a new international peace conference that would reintroduce the international community as a direct and influential player, rather than just the US which "has reached a demeaning state of collusion with Israel." This would allow for the tough issues to be negotiated, "not just between the two parties, because the two parties do not have equal strength" but rather under the auspices of the international community.
"The time has come for the multilateral contest to be resumed," Ashrawi said.
What the new peace conference would bring to the Palestinians is nothing compared to what they could have gotten from the Madrid Peace Process, but then again, as Ashrawi said, it is much more than the Palestinians will receive if they continue to resort to the so called bilateral talks between the occupiers and the occupied.