We come to you from a tortured land and a proud, though captive, people, having been asked to negotiate with our occupiers, but leaving behind the children of the Intifada, and a people under occupation and under curfew, who enjoined us not to surrender or forget. As we speak, thousands of our brothers and sisters are languishing in Israeli prisons and detention camps, most detained without evidence, charge, or trial, many cruelly mistreated and tortured in interrogation, guilty only of seeking freedom or daring to defy the occupation. We speak in their name and we say: set them free.
- Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, Opening Address to the Madrid Peace Conference, October 31, 1991
I caught my breath as Dr. Haidar cleared his throat in order to begin the opening speech of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference on the last day of October 1991. I was sitting on the carpeted floor outside in the hallway around the conference room. Last night, after midnight, I had typed the moving opening paragraph above, sitting at an unfamiliar computer in his hotel suite. Dr. Haidar, calm as always, had said a gracious good night, trusting that his speech would be ready in the morning.
It seemed to me a miracle when the speech was finally in his hands. Not only was the laptop unfamiliar—loaned to us, it seemed, by the omnipresent Americans—but all of us support staff to the delegation had never worked together. At dawn I had woken an irritable Wael to see if we could get the printer at our workstation to function. At first, it refused and I began to despair. But the ingenuous Wael, a Jerusalemite to his bones and a stalwart of the city’s Arab Studies Society, was finally fully awake and much more practical than I was. Wael pressed a button and exclaimed: Ahlan wa sahlan. “Welcome.” I rushed to give the speech to Dr. Haidar who, impeccably dressed, was calmly drinking his tea.
Dr. Haidar began with a greeting in Arabic to the assembled conference of Syrian, Jordanian, and Israeli delegates, assorted diplomats, and the convenors of the conference, the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a last breath for the latter conference sponsor. That momentous year of 1991 had begun with the US-led “Coalition of the Willing” at war with Iraq in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and concluded on Christmas Day with the lowering of the Soviet flag and the proclamation of the Russian Federation.
We also need to recall these tumultuous events which frame—and to some extent shape—the proceedings in Madrid. Certainly, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was experiencing the loss of a key supporter as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and also the desertion of former Arab allies after PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat decided to support Saddam Hussein. The Palestinians thus faced the Madrid conference with a greatly weakened leadership in Tunis. Hence, the PLO accepted its own exclusion from the conference, giving the go-ahead to Madrid in a PLO Central Council meeting held on October 17. As Camille Mansour acutely observed, “while the prospects for accepting the U.S. terms were bleak, refusing the initiative would be even bleaker.”
But back to the carpet in Madrid. I strained to hear every word of Dr. Haidar’s speech as he stood at the podium. Unlike other international conferences, there were no flags of participating countries flying behind him. Because Israel had objected to the presence of a Palestinian flag, all banners were banned.
I had not typed Dr. Haidar’s salutation, but I greatly enjoyed hearing it. Salaam alaikum wa barakatu”. “Peace and blessings be upon you”. The day before, there had been suggestions—even pressure—from some Arab delegates and perhaps from our Palestinian leaders in Tunis to open the speech with the traditional words of Muslims when addressing a public. Bismillah…. “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” (The decision for the speech itself to be in English had also met with some protest and is indicative, I think, of how the Palestinian delegation and steering committee saw their mission in Madrid). Undeterred, the Jordanian media’s transcription of the speech reported “Bismillah….”. In my memory, Dr. Haidar went his own way with a traditional greeting that was more inclusive.
When Dr. Haidar turned to English and began the official speech, tears came to my eyes. Perhaps because I was tired, perhaps because the occasion was so momentous, perhaps because the words themselves, in his faultless delivery, were so moving. (Tom Friedman from the New York Times, lying on the carpet near me, was less stirred; indeed, he looked asleep). For me, it seemed a momentous moment, perhaps a culmination of all the struggles and sacrifice of the first Palestinian intifada, and all those acts of courage and resistance that went before it.
But thirty years later, I re-read the words Dr. Haidar conveyed from the Palestinian people to the delegates, “not to surrender or forget”. I consider the dreary Oslo years that followed Madrid and their fading prospects for Palestinian independence and democracy; the increasing fragmentation of Palestinian land; refugees and exiles banned from their homeland; and Jerusalem closed to most Palestinians. In a recent webinar discussing a new book by Rashid Khalidi, aptly titled The Hundred Years War, a distinguished member of the Palestinian delegation to Madrid, Dr. Mamdouh Al Aker, asked, “Was it a mistake to go to Madrid?”
That is a complex question, and one that needs a response from more than myself—indeed, I am writing this memoir to encourage such responses. But I do think that the weary Oslo years witnessed a series of “forgettings,” whether of the first Palestinian intifada and its promise, or of longer Palestinian historical trajectories and their lessons for us today, including those we might garner from the Madrid peace conference. It is telling, that when I search the internet for Haidar Abdel-Shafi’s Madrid speech, the only site I can find that hosts the text is the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Madrid peace conference shares a general Palestinian amnesia.
Yes, it was three long decades ago, and much has happened since. Dr. Haidar is gone, as are Faisal Husseini, the head of the Palestinian delegation’s Steering Committee, and delegate Saeb Erekat, who sparked controversy when he wore his keffiyeh into the conference room, recently dead of COVID-19. And certainly long gone are the hopes of that moment. Yet I still recall returning on a battered bus to Palestine after the conference. We were met by cheering crowds of our neighbors and compatriots. Young people waved Palestinian flags. Some even renounced their stones, somewhat prematurely, for olive branches. So let us ask again: what were these hopes? Were they false, betrayed, or, more optimistically, deferred?
In her innovative book, A History of False Hopes: Investigative Commissions in Palestine, anthropologist Lori Allen explores the history of a series of these commissions, from King-Crane in 1919 to Goldstone in 2009, arguing that they “have shaped the form, content, and tenor of political discourse about Palestine, determining the nature of authorized conversation between Palestine and Western powers.” In each commission, Allen shows, Palestinians framed their testimony and placed their hopes through international law and liberal principles, “only to be met with failure and disappointment.” Do we then add Madrid to this history of false hopes?
My answer is conditional: not entirely. The actions and words of the Palestinian delegation in Madrid had other tones, other resonances and took place before the world, not in a closed room. I would admit, however, that the successes of the Palestinian delegation in Madrid could largely be described as performative. The delegates and advisors were determined to, and succeeded in, acting like an independent Palestinian delegation rather than the weaker half of a Jordanian-Palestinian joint delegation, our official designation. And indeed by the second round of the direct negotiations in Washington that closely followed Madrid, the Palestinian delegation was indeed independent, a victory of sorts.
Still, in Madrid the acknowledged leader of the Palestinian team, Faisal Husseini, and the delegation’s spokesperson, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, were both barred from the proceedings because of their Jerusalem affiliations (for Israel this meant simply having a Jerusalem “identity card”). Both Faisal and Hanan had been involved in negotiations over the U.S. Letter of Assurances to the Palestinian delegation (each delegation to Madrid received such a letter). Looking back, I am struck by the letter’s paternalistic tone, an American patriarch reassuring his anxious children. On Jerusalem, the letter reads: “we want to assure you that nothing Palestinians do in choosing their delegation members… will affect their claim to East Jerusalem”, noting as well U.S. opposition to the Israeli annexation of the city and affirming the participation of Palestinians in Jerusalem in eventual Palestinian elections. Papa excludes now, but don’t worry, he won’t in the future.
Reading these words now, one can only sigh and turn the page. But on the next page, the reassuring tone of the letter masks the clincher. While the aim of negotiations between Israel and Jordan and Israel and Syria was a peace treaty, for Palestinians, negotiations will aim at a transitional period of “interim self-governing arrangements.” This of course evokes the “self-governing authority” of the 1979 Camp David Agreements that the PLO so firmly rejected. And this transitional goal (unlike the U.S. assurance to oppose Israeli settlement expansion), could not be contested.
In Madrid itself, both Faisal and Hanan challenged both American paternalism and their exclusion from the conference as Jerusalemites. It was not easy. As Hanan recounts in her book, This Side of Peace, she and Faisal were met at Madrid airport by US Consul-General in Jerusalem Molly Williamson and told, “You can’t have accreditation and you’re not allowed into the Palace of Nations.” Hanan tersely replied “We have been accredited by our leadership and our people.” Her comment is apt: “Our great moment, it seems, had come down to plastic name tags.”
Albert Aghazarian (also a Jerusalemite), myself, and other staff members organized our first hastily-assembled press conference—indeed the first by any of the delegations—with Hanan still entirely “illegitimate”. The crowded briefing for representatives of a sizeable portion of the world press concluded in a basement room with Hanan standing on a wobbly table. Much was to follow, as Hanan, Albert, and other Palestinian speakers, in my view and the view of many others, “out-performed” Israeli spokesperson Benyamin Netanyahu and came defiantly to the world stage.
And yet we come again to a performative victory, but one those in the streets of Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps initially welcomed with their own hopes for a better future of justice and freedom. When the Palestinian delegation that December went on to Washington to conduct direct bilateral negotiations with their Israeli counterparts, Jerusalemites (and exiles) were once again barred from the negotiating table. The terms of reference remained an “interim self-governing authority,” (ISGA), termed by our delegation a “Palestinian interim self-governing authority” (PISGA). I will not describe the countless hours devoted to developing a model that met at least minimal Palestinian aspirations; advisor to the delegation Camille Mansour has systematically analyzed both the Palestinian initiatives and their limits in a very useful 1993 article. It was, in my opinion, more than just adding “P” to “ISGA”, but we will never be able to fully assess successes and failures, as these negotiations were superseded by the secret dealings in Oslo.
Mansour wrote his article before the secret negotiations in Oslo came to light. Like many in the Palestinian public, delegates in Washington felt deeply disappointed and even betrayed when the resulting 1993 Declaration of Principles and subsequent 1995 Interim Accords deferred the key issues of settlements, refugees, and Jerusalem to a “final status” that never came. Dr. Haidar himself refused to attend the September 13 1993 Oslo signing ceremony on the White House lawn, staying home in Gaza. The road from Madrid had ended in agreements that would be a barrier, rather than an entry, to Palestinian self-determination, a symbol of the many roadblocks and checkpoints that would litter the coming years. A leading political activist of my generation told me his take on the difference between Madrid and Oslo: “In Madrid, Palestinians negotiated and resisted, in Oslo, there was only negotiations: no resistance.”
In this highly troubled year of 2021, as the exclusions in Jerusalem are once more being challenged in Sheikh Jarrah, at Damascus Gate, and at the Al Aqsa Mosque, Dr. Haidar’s words in Madrid on Jerusalem echo in my mind:
And Jerusalem, Ladies and Gentlemen, that city which is not only the soul of Palestine but the cradle of three world religions, is tangible even in its claimed absence from our midst at this stage… Jerusalem, the city of peace, has been barred from a peace conference and deprived of its calling. Palestinian Jerusalem, the capital of our homeland and future state, defines Palestinian existence - past, present and future - but itself has been denied a voice and an identity. Jerusalem defies exclusive possessiveness or bondage.
It was the young who resisted exclusions in Jerusalem and elsewhere this May—as it was the young (largely but certainly not exclusively) who protested the killing of Nizar Banat by Palestinian security personnel hardly a month later. During this troubled time, I opened the venerable magazine This Week in Palestine, to discover that the Palestinian Youth Movement, a “transnational, independent, grassroots movement of young Palestinians”, whose strongest presence seems to be in the US and Canada, plans to mark the thirty-year anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference this October with an alternative conference in Madrid. Their denunciation of the first Madrid conference is unsparing:
October 2021 will mark thirty years since the infamous Madrid Conference, an occasion that officially launched the so-called peace process, with all its serious repercussions for Palestinians in the years and decades that followed… We, the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), are honored to announce our participation in the Alternative Palestinian Path Conference مؤتمر المَسار الفلسطيني البديل taking place in Madrid, Spain in October 2021… Our only path forward requires us to return to the legacy of collective resistance, popular and democratic participation, and a revolutionary resolve for a free and just future for our people.
An alternative path to our stunted reality and to a free and just future. Who, I thought, would not agree? But “infamous” dismisses a piece of Palestinian history and is thus too close in my view to an act of forgetting. My own memories of Madrid are in no way definitive and indeed I must question them myself. But I do ask: should not this path to justice reckon more deeply with past events in Palestinian history—in this case the Madrid Peace Conference—not by simply erasing the actions and achievements of the participants, however performative, but through learning from them? A public conversation addressing Mamdouh’s question—was it wrong to go to Madrid?—might be a good place to begin. For young Palestinians, the preservation of the PLO seems the opposite of a burning question but what are the other questions we need to ask to move towards justice? And my own question, “Was it wrong to hope?” has a present version: is it wrong to hope now?
In Madrid in 1991, the conference drew to a close. After the incessant buzz of the conference, always hurrying, always carrying documents, I awoke in my hotel bedroom to silence. The delegation and advisors had been summoned to Tunis to meet Arafat and other PLO leaders—hush-hush travel that I am sure was common knowledge. With time to myself, I walked to the Prado Museum. I was lightheaded, high from lack of sleep, from exposure to power, and perhaps from hope. I stood in front of the magnificently large Rubens paintings of voluptuous flowing figures that looked like they were flying to freedom, and I felt giddy. The vibrant colors of Velasquez produced shivers of delight.
That day, I did not venture into the room displaying Goya’s black paintings, including the Third of May 1808, when French soldiers occupying Madrid killed hundreds of Spanish rebels. But perhaps this is the room that we inhabit now—we both need to look with Goya’s bleak eye at the last three decades, and also understand why we might continue to hope. And then search for an exit.
 Camille Mansour, “The Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations: An Overview and Assessment,” Journal of Palestine Studies XXII, Spring 1993, p. 6.
 Special Document File: The Madrid Peace Conference, Journal of Palestine Studies XXI, Winter 1992, p. 118.
 Hanan Ashrawi, This Side of Peace: A Personal Account, Simon and Schuster, 1995, p. 143.
 Mansour, Op. cit.