Search for Peace

For 40 years, America, Israel and its Arab neighbors have struggled and failed to achieve a lasting Mideast peace. Now a new effort is about to begin in Annapolis.

November 25, 2007|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Special to The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's father liked to quote the Woody Allen line that 90 percent of life is just showing up. In fact, George H.W. Bush's signal achievement in Middle East diplomacy came from persuading leaders and representatives from Israel and much of the Arab world to show up for a peace conference in Madrid at the end of October 1991.

It wasn't easy. Then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III traveled and negotiated for months to remove obstacles blocking this face-to-face meeting of longtime enemies. Neither side wanted to confer legitimacy on the other without extracting a price. At times the competing demands from various parties resembled the haggling at a Middle East bazaar. Baker's bare-knuckled pressure on Israel left a residue of resentment among American Jews. Still, the conference achieved real progress.

Now George W. Bush seems to be taking a leaf from his father's playbook and applying the Woody Allen maxim to Tuesday's Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis. His administration hopes a strong turnout of prominent world figures, particularly from Arab states, will bolster Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations aimed at finally creating a Palestinian state that coexists with Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has set a goal of reaching a deal before Bush leaves office in January, 2009.

Yet the excitement and anticipation that surrounded the Madrid conference are all but absent in the leadup to Annapolis. This week's brief gathering on the Chesapeake is haunted by the past 14 years of disappointment, failure and violence. That merely "showing up" is once again important shows how far regional attitudes have slid backward from the progress of the early 1990s.

The 1991 conference included bitter reminders of a half-century of war, suffering and hatred.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir accused Syria of having "one of the most oppressive, tyrannical regimes in the world," of being a host to terrorists and a country whose shrinking, ancient Jewish community "has been exposed to cruel oppression, torture and discrimination of the worst kind."

Syria's foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, in turn, held up an old "wanted" poster showing Shamir at 32, when the Israeli was a commander in the Stern Gang, which carried out attacks against British forces in mandatory Palestine. "He himself recognized that he was a terrorist. That he practices terrorism," Sharaa declared, accusing Shamir of aiding the 1948 assassination of a United Nations mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte.

Such outbursts notwithstanding, the Madrid meeting broke through the taboos that had kept Arab states from dealing with Israel and Israelis from negotiating with Palestinians. It marked a time when merely "showing up" meant something. Jews and Arabs met publicly; some shook hands. Palestinians got to address a global audience.

When the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, swept into the Spanish royal palace in traditional desert garb, he conferred a legitimacy on the gathering from the custodians of Mecca and Medina. And Baker's months of pre-Madrid diplomacy produced a legal edifice, a series of understandings and assurances, grounded in United Nations resolutions, that clarified U.S. positions on tough issues and served as a guide to future talks.

The conference led immediately to direct negotiations. A few years later, a new Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, reconciled with the Palestine Liberation Organization as a result of secret talks begun in Oslo. PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who was the uninvited elephant in the room at Madrid, negotiated his way back to his homeland. A declaration of principles signed on the White House lawn in September 1993, launched the Palestinians on a path to self-government and, by implication, eventual statehood. An Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement quickly fell into place.

One key difference between then and now is America's role in the Middle East and the world. Madrid coincided with the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was collapsing. When George H.W. Bush welcomed then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to Madrid as a cosponsor of the peace process, his was a gesture of friendship by the United States toward a defeated and depleted adversary.

America seemed pre-eminent. U.S. forces had driven Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait, protecting the oil-rich Persian Gulf states and containing, for the time being, an aggressive dictator who had threatened to burn half of Israel. The PLO and Syria had lost their once-powerful Soviet patron and acquiesced to U.S. leadership, breaking up the pan-Arab ring of hostility toward Israel.

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