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This Is Not How You Stabilize the Middle East

This week's summit in Warsaw is a pale imitation of a serious effort three decades ago.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a November press briefing (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

This week, the United States and Poland will be co-hosting a summit in Warsaw to “Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East.” More than 70 countries have been invited, a departure from the Trump administration’s usual unilateralism.

Unfortunately, history suggests the conference won’t amount to much.

Nearly 30 years ago, the United States launched its boldest regional effort toward peace and stability. The Madrid Conference of 1991 arguably failed on its core objectives—but not for lack of trying. And the Madrid example, today, shows just how unlikely the Trump administration’s efforts are to bear fruit.

Capitalizing on the end of the first Gulf war in the spring of 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced that the time had come to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. His administration, led by tireless Secretary of State James Baker and a brain trust of Middle East and Cold War specialists, orchestrated a major international summit on the Middle East in Madrid, Spain, that October.

Despite shortcomings, Madrid did succeed in bringing all the parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict to the negotiating table for the first time. The conference launched unprecedented multilateral cooperation between Israel and the Arab world on arms control and regional security, economic development, the environment, water, and refugees. It broke a taboo of Arab officials refusing to sit with Israeli officials. Gulf states like Oman and Qatar hosted Israeli delegations in subsequent years, with a surprising amount of engagement continuing even after the demise of the Clinton-era Oslo peace process by the late 1990s.

To develop the conference, Baker spent eight months in what is known as “shuttle diplomacy,” consulting regional and international partners on the meeting, even co-chairing the summit with the Soviet Union. The vision of the conference was clear: to capitalize on the war’s conclusion to build a foundation for regional peace, with the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the cornerstone of the effort.

Compare that kind of preparation and vision with that of the current administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the summit in an interview scarcely a month ahead of the actual meeting, evidently without consulting key allies, even reportedly surprising its Polish hosts: In the midst of a Middle East trip to shore up regional pressure against Iran, Pompeo suggested an important element of the conference would be “making sure Iran is not a destabilizing influence.”

Just a few weeks later, after pushback from Poland as well as European allies uncomfortable using an international summit to target one country, the administration broadened the aims of the meeting to focus on a range of issues, from extremism, to missiles, to terrorism (all topics of high relevance in the Iran file). With the administration’s special envoy on Iran playing an instrumental role in organizing the forum, skepticism remains about the meeting being anything other than a vehicle to pressure and isolate Iran. “The first issue on the agenda is Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said Sunday, despite the word “Iran,” according to the BBC, appearing nowhere on the official agenda. Needless to say, Iran has not been invited, and key global and regional players like Russia, Turkey, and the Palestinians declined to attend.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also not on the agenda, though President Trump’s “peace team” is reportedly attending. This decision marks another key difference with the Madrid conference. While the Bush administration’s team did not believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the sole or even primary source of the region’s instability—after all, the United States just fought Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in a war that had nothing to do with Israel—they also correctly recognized that without a resolution to the conflict, Israel would never be at peace and the region would never be stable.

This week’s Warsaw meeting seems to ignore this reality. To be sure, Israeli-Palestinian peace is hard to prioritize amidst the Middle East’s multiple civil wars. And Israeli and some key Arab leaders appear more aligned than at any other point in the conflict due to common concerns over Iran. But even were the Warsaw meeting to feature a dramatic meeting between Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s leaders that some have speculated about, a full normalization of relations still depends on resolving the Palestinian conflict. Given that the Trump administration and Palestinian leadership are not even on speaking terms (other than through Twitter taunts), we are likely to be waiting a long time for such resolution.

Nor would limited Israeli-Saudi rapprochement in Warsaw, if it occurs, be particularly groundbreaking: Saudi Arabia is not a military risk to Israel today, and further alignment between two countries on the same side of the Iran showdown would hardly usher in a new era of peace in the region. International alarm over the Khashoggi affair or Saudi policies in Yemen—more dangerous because of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry—seem similarly unlikely to be resolved in this setting. As the late Yitzhak Rabin famously observed, you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends.

Madrid wasn’t perfect. Like today, Iran was excluded, as were other countries that opposed peace with Israel. This exclusion made sense given the overriding purpose of the conference—peace between Israel and its neighbors. But unfortunately, the exclusion of Iran provided further incentive for it to undermine the Madrid work by supporting terrorist groups opposed to Arab-Israeli reconciliation; it even found sympathy in Arab public opinion by characterizing the peace effort as an attempt to impose American and Israeli hegemony over the region. Senior U.S. officials also failed to pay adequate attention to the multilateral peace process after its initial purpose at Madrid—to entice the Israelis to the table—was satisfied. Many of the successes of the multilateral working groups on shared regional issues evolved in spite of this American indifference.

There will be opportunities to learn from Madrid and improve the regional architecture for successful diplomacy, particularly in the aftermath of the horrific conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the daunting environmental, water, and economic challenges facing the region and its next generation. This will require painstaking work by global powers to generate widespread regional and international support. And it will require a cooperative approach that includes friends as well as adversaries, rather than building upon ever-shifting security alliances.

The Madrid process begun nearly 30 years ago showed promise, but ultimately stalled, and will need rethinking to adapt to today’s Middle East. The world could use a worthy successor. The Warsaw summit probably isn’t it.