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

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Those who were following the news in the 1990s may remember the Madrid Peace Conference. That was a big meeting between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors. In fact, it was the first substantive meeting between Israel and those neighbors. And the momentum generated by that meeting has all but disappeared in the years since. There is no peace. But some of the participants are back in Madrid for an unofficial gathering. It's an attempt to revive the Mideast peace process now.

Jerome Socolovsky reports.

(Soundbite of lobby)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: In the lobby of a fancy hotel in Madrid, Arabs and Israelis who were here 15 years ago greet each other warmly. There are smiles and laughs, sometimes even hugs and kisses. There was Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher, and the former Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam Majali. Many personal relationships have survived, even flourished, despite the flaring hatreds between their peoples. But two Syrians sitting at a table in the corner want nothing of the camaraderie. One is President Bashar Assad's legal adviser, Riad Daoudi. The other, Bushra Kanafani, is a foreign ministry spokeswoman.

Ms. BUSHRA KANAFANI (Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Syria): We are not here to thank the Israelis, thanking them for continuing the occupation of my own territories. Why should I do that?

SOCOLOVSKY: Syria demands the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war. None of the participants here are officially representing their governments. Still, Kanafani says Syria wants to renew peace talks.

Ms. KANAFANI: When the Israeli government decides that looking for peace is the best policy for Israel and the region, then we are going to work on that and sit again together to talk peace.

SOCOLOVSKY: 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 Jonas Gahr Store went to Damascus to persuade the Syrians to attend.

Mr. JONAS GAHR STORE (Foreign Minister, Norway): Leaving our 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. To the contrary, engagement means also putting pressure, engaging, holding people responsible.

SOCOLOVSKY: The United States is trying to isolate Syria because it allegedly supports terrorist groups, but there are also American participants at this informal conference. One of them is Dan Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt.

Mr. DAN KURTZER (Former U.S. Ambassador): If this conference helps stimulate thinking and helps to launch dialogues and contacts and networks, that's just fine.

SOCOLOVSKY: Many diplomats and mediators say the value of this three-day meeting which ends today has been the informal conversations over coffee and after dinner. They played down the importance of the rhetoric and the speeches. Even so, Dalia Rabin, daughter of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, says she's disappointed that so far she's heard nothing new.

Ms. DALIA RABIN: I was expecting in this meeting more courage, I must admit. We are trying to create something that will influence public opinion in our states, so let the delegates be more courageous.

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

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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