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The Middle East peace process – 20 years later

Members of Middle East negotiating teams from past peace talks share their impressions and reflections after two decades of negotiating for Palestinian-Israeli peace

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 2 Nov 2011
Madrid Peace Conference was thought to be a cornerstone for Middle East peace, despite the absence of a Palestinian delegation. (Photo file: AFP)
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"Sometimes, yes, I think maybe it would have been better for us to have walked the path of negotiations when (Egyptian president Anwar) Sadat proposed it back then. Often times I think that it is futile to continue negotiating, but it has become so that we have no other choice," said a long time Palestinian negotiator who spoke to Ahram Online of his long 20-year involvement in peace negotiations.

In November 1977 when Sadat went to Jerusalem, he certainly hoped to establish Egyptian-Israeli peace. Thereby restoring the remainder of Egypt’s territories captured and occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War and only partially liberated during the 1973 October War.

Sadat was also hoping to open the door for a wider Arab-Israeli peace: particularly a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. What is more, a draft for a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal had been negotiated along the lines of the 1978 Camp David Accords, just one year before the conclusion of the full Egyptian-Israeli peace deal.

At the time, Sadat was shrugged off as a traitor, willing to give up on the whole of historic Palestine, which was divided by a UN resolution in 1947. In the years after 1979, there were some hidden overtures between the Palestinians and Israelis but nothing really materialised until the launch of the Madrid Peace Conference.

The negotiator who spoke with Ahram Online had started off as a member of the technical assistant team for the Palestinian delegation that attended the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference: an initiative by the US after winning its war over Kuwait-occupying Iraq. Furthermore, Israeli control of the Palestinian territories was markedly less aggressive following its defeat of Arab armies in 1967.

At the time, he recalls things were different, as Palestinians were effectively if not legally in control of some considerable territories and resources. The leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) were all in exile - mostly in Tunis, and Islamic resistance was finding its way into the hearts and minds of many Palestinians.

Like this Palestinian negotiator, other Arab peace negotiators, including those from Egypt who had already signed a peace, perceived the Madrid Peace Conference as a serious attempt by the US to shift the Middle East into a new gear, moving beyond military conflicts.

"After the Iraq war, we thought that the US was seeking to minimise the damage that could undermine its oil and other interests in the region by pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis; this is why we wanted to help; this is why we keenly helped during the Madrid Conference days and beyond," said a retired Egyptian diplomat who was part of the Egyptian delegation in Madrid.

Palestinian and Egyptian diplomats have many unkind words to qualify Israel’s attitude in Madrid and beyond – until this day. These and other peace process negotiators agree that their Israeli counterparts like beat around the bush, spending long hours of negotiations running down the other negotiating energy of their counterparts before they offer "a proposal full of mines."

“On the surface it always looks fine but when you have a closer look at it you can start to see the traps that are being set for you; they did that in Madrid and in every single negotiation after that," said the Egyptian diplomat. He added that it is "precisely this Israeli tactic that has made a peace deal impossible throughout the years."

Retired Palestinian, Egyptian and American diplomats suggest that the true lost opportunity occurred in 2000 at Camp David when US president Bill Clinton offered his peace parameters that to this day remain the basic guidelines for any possible peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis. This was a true chance, they argue, to attain that ever elusive Palestinian-Israeli settlement, which in turn could have opened the door for a more comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

"President Clinton at times almost yelled at Mr (Ehud) Barak (the then Israeli prime minister); tension was often very high," said a retired US diplomat who asked for his name to be withheld.

The US-placed blame which fell on PLO-Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat’s shoulders was the only part of the story that the American president decided to go public with. However, another part was kept untold but was much talked about at the time in the US capital: Washington was frustrated with Barak who was too scared to make the historic peace deal that Clinton kept saying former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin would have signed if he were negotiating. Rabin after all signed the Oslo Accords with Arafat in 1993.

But if Barak was frustrating for the Americans, Palestinians and the Arabs – they all had high expectations – then Benyamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister, is a real nightmare.

"When Netanyahu was re-elected prime minister (of Israel), I simply knew it was pointless to negotiate; Netanyahu does not want a peace deal with the Palestinians; he really despises us so much that he would never sign a peace deal with us – never," said a senior Palestinian negotiator who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Despair over the chances of Palestinian-Israeli peace, or for that matter Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace, is far from being an exclusively Palestinian concern. It is a concern that is shared by many peace process negotiators and diplomats, Egyptian, Arab and foreign alike.

"Unfortunately people in the Arab world think that we can pressure Mr Netanyahu but the fact of the matter is that we cannot and that (US) President (Barack) Obama, who really wanted to make peace in this region, has tried, but he cannot decide for the Israeli prime minister; it is as simple as that," said a Middle East based American diplomat.

This week, Mahmoud Abbas the leader of the PA said that the Arabs had made a mistake by not accepting the partition of historic Palestine but that it was unfair to keep punishing Palestinians for a mistake that they made over 60 years ago.

The statement does go over well with many Palestinian politicians who argue that it was impossible for anyone then to accept the 1947 UN partition. Some, however, interpret this statement as a sign of the high level of frustration that Abbas is suffering.

Abbas, according to some of his closest aides, has really given up on making a peace deal with Israel that would grant Palestinians a semblance of a state with a fraction of Jerusalem. "He is really depressed and he knows that nothing is going to come out of any negotiations conducted in the same style as they have been for the past years," said an aide of the PA leader.

Today, Abbas is hoping for an international peace conference that could set the parameters right so that Palestinians could have a hope of negotiating a deal of some sort rather than to keep moving in the vicious circle of endless and inconclusive negotiations.

With the US administration getting ready for re-election and with the Middle East in a state of transition, especially considering the current state of political upheaval in Syria, there seems to be little interest in any such peace conference: much less for a peace conference similar to the one that was hosted by Spain twenty years ago. 

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