Madrid Meeting Seeks to Spur Mideast Peace The Spanish government hosts a conference on the moribund Mideast peace process, bringing together Israeli and Arab officials and a delegation from the Syrian government.
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Madrid Meeting Seeks to Spur Mideast Peace

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Madrid Meeting Seeks to Spur Mideast Peace

Madrid Meeting Seeks to Spur Mideast Peace

Madrid Meeting Seeks to Spur Mideast Peace

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6827949/6827950" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

It's been 15 years since the Madrid peace conference and the momentum generated by that historic meeting of Arabs and Israelis has all but disappeared.

But some Europeans are hoping that a reunion of the participants going on now in Madrid may give a new boost to the peace process. For the first time in years, Syrians and Israelis are sitting at the same table — though they're not exactly talking to each other.

In the lobby of a fancy hotel in Madrid, Arabs and Israelis who took part in the talks 15 years ago greeted each other warmly, with smiles and laughs and even hugs and kisses.

Their personal relationships have survived, even flourished, despite the flaring hatreds between their peoples.

But two Syrians sitting at a table in the corner wanted nothing of the camaraderie. One was Syrian President Bashar Assad's legal adviser, Riad Daoudi. The other, Bushra Kanafani, is a foreign ministry spokeswoman.

"We are not here to hug the Israelis," Kanafani said. "Thanking them for the occupation of my own territories? Why should I do that?"

Syria demands return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war.

None of the participants here — including two former Israeli intelligence chiefs — are officially representing their governments.

Still, Kanafani said Syria wants to renew peace talks.

"When the Israeli government decides that looking for peace is the best policy for Israel and the region, then we are going to welcome that and sit again together to talk peace," he said.

The Israeli government hasn't shown much interest in talking to Damascus after last summer's war against Syrian-backed Hezbollah. Some analysts wonder whether Assad is trying to distract attention from his government's alleged involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Still, Norwegian Foreign Minister Yoonas Garr Store went to Damascus to persuade the Syrians to attend.

"Leaving out key players in the region saying we don't talk to them, because we don't agree with them, we don't believe that's a viable strategy," he said. "To the contrary, engagement means also, putting pressure — engaging, holding people responsible."

The United States boycotts Syria because it allegedly supports terrorist groups. However, there were also American participants at this informal conference.

Among them was Dan Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt.

"If this conference helps stimulate thinking, and helps to launch dialogue, and contacts, and networks, that's just fine," Kurtzer said.

Many diplomats and mediators said the value of the three-day meeting, which ends Friday, was in the informal conversations over coffee and after dinner. They said you shouldn't pay too much attention to the speeches.

Even so, Dalia Rabin, daughter of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was disappointed that so far she had heard nothing new.

"I was expecting, in this meeting, more courage, I must admit," she said. "Because most of the delegations are non-official, it's not official negotiations. We are trying to create something that will influence public opinion in our states, so let the delegates be more courageous."

But of course her own father, along with Anwar Sadat of Egypt, paid with his life for being courageous about peace in the Middle East.