Madrid II: Back to the future for Middle East peace?

Many experts have expressed the view that even partial Israeli annexation of the West Bank constitutes a grave risk to the two-state vision, namely, to establish a state of Palestine alongside a secure, Jewish, and democratic Israel. While popular support for two states remains relatively high among Israelis and Palestinians, confidence that it is achievable has fallen precipitously.

Assuming he is elected in November, how could a President Biden advance prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on two states? For a possible path forward, Biden could turn back the clock almost three decades to study the Madrid peace conference.

First, some history: A U.S.-led military coalition defeated Saddam Hussein in the first Iraq War in early 1991. Later that year, President George H.W. Bush, with the leverage of his enhance international stature, bought together Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab countries in Madrid for groundbreaking face-to-face negotiations that would take place in two tracks.

A bilateral track involved separate talks between Israel and its four Arab neighbors — the Palestinians, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. A multilateral track launched in early 1992 in Moscow – which involved the participation of Israel, many of the Arab states, major nations from outside the Middle East, and issues experts — focused on regional challenges: water, the environment, arms control and security, refugees, and economic development. The idea underpinning this two-track framework was that parallel bilateral and multilateral negotiations could be mutually reinforcing. The Israeli-Palestinian bilateral track was eclipsed by the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993.

It is widely agreed that the time is not ripe for seeking to resolve final status issues, including borders, security, refugees, settlements, and Jerusalem. Instead, if the political will existed, Israel and the Palestinians could work on interim confidence-building measures, and create conditions on the ground that preserve the potential for a future two-state outcome.

Perhaps the parties could be encouraged to take these interim steps if they were placed, like they were in the early 1990s, in a broader context of regional Israeli-Arab cooperation. In some respects, conditions for regional cooperation are more auspicious today than they were back then. There is a strong desire by the Sunni Arab states for security coordination with Israel against common enemies, a hegemonic Iran and transnational terrorist groups. With the value of oil at an all-time low, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states might look to high tech Israel to help build their economies. Water and the environment remain matters of high priority in the region. With the Coid-19 pandemic raging, there is no more important area for cooperation today than public health.

This gradual approach also could appeal to the large center of Israeli and American Jewish opinion, which neither favors a precipitous withdrawal from the West Bank and creation of a Palestinian state, nor the absorption of millions of Palestinians into a Greater Israel. My centrist friend Yossi Klein Halevi often asserts that he has two nightmares. One is the establishment of a Palestinian state; the other is failure to establish such a state. For this two-track process to work, however, the long-term strategic goal of the bilateral negotiations would have to be Palestinian independence.

In his first year or more in office, Biden’s highest priorities no doubt will be domestic. He will need to deal with the pandemic and our flawed health care system, the damaged economy, and the challenge of achieving a greater measure of racial justice in America. On the foreign policy side, given the deterioration in our global standing wrought by four years of Trump’s “America First” policies, Biden will have much to do just to revitalize important long-standing alliances.

Yet, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a way of inserting itself on to the American and international agendas. There is no status quo. The continued march by Israel and the Palestinians away from a sustainable two-state outcome is likely to produce unrest and, possibly, violence. This can only bode ill, not just for the parties but also for the entire region. Middle East stability and security remain important U.S. national interests. Therefore, with careful planning and preparation, a Biden administration should consider launching a Madrid style two-track negotiating framework, sooner rather than later.

About the Author
Martin J. Raffel, until his retirement in 2014, served for 27 years as senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an umbrella body with 16 national member organizations and over 120 locally based organizations (JCRCs). He was JCPA’s lead professional on matters related to Israel, world Jewry and international human rights. In 2009, Raffel took the lead in organizing the Israel Action Network, a joint strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and JCPA that seeks to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. He currently serves on the Board Of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA.