Reaching across the divide (IV)

by Salameh Nematt
Dear Akiva,

Like you, I covered Madrid 1991 for my newspaper. At the time, there was a sense of optimism in the air, despite the theatricals from all sides. What I felt was most significant about Madrid 1991 is that, despite the spin from both the Israeli and Arab sides as to the interpretation of the conference's reference point for peace negotiations, there was a near universal agreement that the talks should be at least based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. Ever since, nearly all peace initiatives, including the latest Road Map, have referred to these resolutions as the basis for a peace settlement. The resilience of these nearly 40-year-old resolutions stems from the fact that they are the only internationally accepted legal perimeters for a resolution of the conflict. Furthermore, and despite Israel insisting on its own unique interpretation of these resolutions, saying Resolution 242 spoke of an Israeli withdrawal from "territories" rather than "the territories" occupied in the 1967 war, the principle itself, as demonstrated in the "land for peace" formula adopted in reaching the peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, survived. The reason why I'm referring to 242 is that I'm reminded of a speech made in Madrid by then Secretary of State James Baker, a key architect of the 1991 conference, in which he stated that the exercise at hand was about negotiating "the implementation" of resolution 242, rather than discussing the principle itself. This point received little attention at the time, and subsequent American statements tended to fudge the issue, referring instead to peace negotiations "on the basis" of that resolution. Ironically, the Palestinian side at the time, led by the PLO, insisted that 242 on its own was not enough, as it did not address the Palestinian people's right to self-determination, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the resolution to the problem of Palestinian refugees enshrined in a separate UN resolution. But both the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to talk, and it made it look as though some kind of a compromise formula could be worked out.

The reason why I write this, dear Akiva, is because I don't believe that it is possible to launch peace negotiations between two or more warring parties, without a principled agreement on the legal perimeters and reference points enabling both sides to know where they stand and where they're heading. The late King Hussein used to say that both sides need to see a light at the end of the tunnel before they can decide to enter the tunnel. Four decades have passed since 1967 and the resolutions that followed, but the Palestinians and their leaders have not been able to accept a settlement that would give them much less than what international law has suggested was their right: regaining the lands lost to Israel in the 1967 war. Granted, the Palestinians have shown willingness to be flexible in terms of implementation to accommodate changes on the ground over the past decades, many embracing Henry Kissinger's call for the implementation of 242 "with minor border rectifications on a reciprocal basis," but they have never abandoned the principle of "land for peace" as endorsed by most parties to the conflict. This is why, reviving the spirit of Madrid 1991, today, requires us to remember what this conflict was all about to begin with, and what peace talks are supposed to be all about as well. Short of that, we would be holding negotiations about holding negotiations, which is not likely to get us anywhere. Both sides have inflicted a lot of pain and suffering on each other, and a lot of pain and suffering on their own people in the process. Before the Palestinians gave up on their pro-peace government and elected the anti-peace camp, having given up on that government's ability to regain their rights through peaceful means, the Israelis were also disillusioned with their own government's failure when they voted for the hardliners seeking a settlement by force. This has also failed, for both sides. While it is encouraging that there is an increasing realization in Israel and Palestine that the use of force is not a viable option, we need to revisit Madrid 1991 to see where we went wrong. Is it the incremental approach that was supposed to bring confidence and ended up eroding it, or is it the minority on both sides that fears peace and always succeeds in undermining it for the majority? Perhaps Madrid+15 can provide some answers. Good luck!

Salameh Nematt


* Salameh Nematt is a political analyst writing for Al Hayat International Arab newspaper ( This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 11 January 2007,
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A plea for peace from a bereaved Palestinian father
When will it all end?
Reaching across the divide (I)
Reaching across the divide (II)
Reaching across the divide (III)
Reaching across the divide (V)
Reaching across the divide (VI)
Reaching across the divide (VII)
Reaching across the divide (VIII)
Reaching across the divide (IX)
Reaching across the divide (X)
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Other articles in this series

A plea for peace from a bereaved Palestinian father by Bassam Aramin
When will it all end? by Gershon Baskin
Reaching across the divide (I) by Salameh Nematt
Reaching across the divide (II) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (III) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (V) by Salameh Nematt
Reaching across the divide (VI) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (VII) by Salameh Nematt
Reaching across the divide (VIII) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (IX) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (X) by Salameh Nematt