James Baker
James Baker. Photo by Getty Images
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The revelations by Al Jazeera concerning the limping peace process between Israel and the Palestinians apparently did not knock James A. Baker, III, off his chair at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The man who in the 1990s was secretary of state in President George H.W. Bush's administration and, before that, White House chief of staff and secretary of the treasury in the Reagan administration, has always believed a tough approach toward Hamas and a forgiving approach toward the Israeli settlements in the territories is a sure recipe for failure.

In October 1991, Baker dragged the international and regional coalition that had formed for the war in Iraq to the peace conference in Madrid - what was then dubbed "a window of opportunity." He compelled the most right-wing leader Israel had ever had until then, Yitzhak Shamir, to pretend he wasn't sitting with representatives of Yasser Arafat. A year later, in the midst of an election race, when Bush, Sr. was running for a second term against Bill Clinton, The New York Times published an embarrassing remark that Baker made in a closed discussion. In answer to a warning from someone at campaign headquarters, to the effect that the settlement crisis would annoy Jewish voters, Baker muttered that, in any case "they didn't vote for us [the Republicans]," so "f--- the Jews."

Twenty years after the Madrid conference, the Baker Institute is organizing a "class reunion" for representatives of the Arab states, Israel and other countries that attended the conference. A year ago, the institute presented three alternative models for territorial exchanges between Israel and the Palestinians - the work of experts from the two sides. In a special telephone interview with Haaretz last weekend, Baker spoke of the weak points in the Middle East policies of U.S. presidents after Bush, and proposes some guidelines to resolving the conflict.

After the first Gulf War, you spoke about a window of opportunity for peace between Israel and all its neighbors. This week we learned from up close that the window is pretty much closed. What went wrong?

Baker agrees that, after the Gulf War, the United States did manage to bring about a revolution of sorts, adding: "Well, you remember we got Hafez Assad to change 25 years of policy and agree to sit face-to-face with Israel. That's what Israel had always been saying: All we want is the ability to sit down and negotiate peace with our Arab neighbors."

However, notes Baker, "We lost my wonderful friend and a champion for peace, Yitzhak Rabin. You don't have the same impetus coming from the [current] government in Israel to do what's necessary for peace that you had under Rabin.

"I quite frankly had high hopes, and I even went on television and said that I thought that Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] was a lot more pragmatic than people gave him credit for. And I predicted at the time that he might accomplish a deal with Syria. And I really think he would like to be seen to be the prime minister who brought peace to his people, but he hasn't turned out that way."

Baker suggests another reason the vision was not fulfilled: "We lost that election in 1992, and the Clinton administration came in. I do not fault President Clinton because he made extensive efforts, and came close, but he waited until late in his second term to really engage. One thing that I think is good as far as the Obama administration is concerned is that they have not waited. I mean, they have been willing to try and engage from the very beginning. They have huge problems today that have to be overcome, not the least of which is bifurcation of Palestinian politics. How can you expect to achieve peace when half of the Palestinian party is not at the table?"

Do you mean the United States should talk to Hamas?

"Yeah. Now, you know I'm not one who believes you should negotiate with terrorists, but I am one who believes that you negotiate peace with your enemies, not with your friends. Back in 1991, when neither Israel nor the U.S. would talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization, it was a terrorist organization. If you're going to negotiate peace you have to find a way to negotiate with your enemies or talk to your enemies, and we found a way by finding Palestinians from within the territories who could speak for the Palestinian side of the equation."

It was very clear that they spoke in the name of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"The Shamir government, which was a reasonably hard-line government, knew we were talking to the Palestinians from within the territories, who were taking their orders from Tunis and, every time I'd meet with them, they'd give me a piece of paper that was sort of an authority from Yasser Arafat and I said, 'I'm not interested in that, you keep that piece of paper.'"

The younger President Bush made a huge mistake when he insisted on elections in the Palestinian Authority and Hamas was democratically elected.

"Well, that's absolutely right. Now you talk about a big mistake, a huge mistake that was made by the U.S. in my view was to require that election. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians wanted that election at the time, but we forced it, and then we don't like the result and so we say we're not going to talk to them."

Do you concur with the criticism of Obama that says he has wasted precious time on the building moratorium in the settlements, and in the end has come out of it empty-handed?

"The mistake there in my view was to come out early on and say what Secretary Clinton said and President Obama said: No settlements, no natural growth, no settlements, no expansions, no nothing, and it was just a very tough, hard-line position - no settlements. If you take that position, you can't back away from it, because that demonstrates a political weakness that means you're going to have a difficult time moving forward.

"What we did with loan guarantees has to some extent been misinterpreted. That was not economic pressure or duress. All we said was: 'If you want us to give you another $10 billion in loan guarantees, we respectfully request that you give some credence to what has been U.S. policy for all these years: that is that settlements are an obstacle to peace. And if you can't do that, then we're not going to give you the $10 billion.

"And of course Prime Minister Shamir said: 'Well, it doesn't matter, we're gonna get it from Congress. We'll just go get it from the Congress.' And we said: 'Well, we're not sure you can do that, but we'll see you on Capitol Hill.' And they didn't get it. I think sometimes there's a reluctance on the part of administrations to take that position," says Baker, because this touches on internal American politics. Therefore, "If this administration is going to take it, it's probably going to wait till the second term."

Do you think we have missed an opportunity to reach an agreement with Syria?

"I've always felt that the Syrian issue is a lot easier to resolve than the Palestinian one. Because it's a very simple matter of exchanging the Golan for a secure peace - underline 'secure.' And you know they got very close, both governments got very close on that some years ago, including detailed exposition of the security arrangement. I guess all I'm saying is that the Syrian deal to me has always seemed to be a much easier nut to crack. You don't have as many settlers up there, and so, yes, you would be dismantling some settlements. Most of them, at least they used to be Labor Party settlements. And when I was secretary of state, I even proposed that the U.S. head a multinational force on the Golan to assure Israel's security, with U.S. troops up there. I think that's still one component that ought to be included."

When and how would it be possible to reopen the window of opportunity?

"I am concerned about it, yes indeed. Because I think if you cannot achieve a secure separation, given the demographics, how can you expect to maintain your democratic and Jewish character? You can't. I'm not one who goes around saying Israel is practicing apartheid. I don't believe you are. But what I'm saying is, if you continue the occupation, at some point there's going to be an Arab majority, a vast Arab majority, and if you then don't give them full rights, then ... that question will arise.

"Can I give you five truisms with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict that I have developed through the years, and I think they're true? First of all, I think there's really a Catch-22 regarding this issue. And that is this: Israel will never enjoy security, in my view, as long as she occupies the territories, and the Palestinians will never achieve their dream of living in peace in their own state as long as Israel lacks security. And this is truism number one. It's really a tragic version of the chicken or egg question: Which came first?

"Secondly, I don't believe there is a military solution to this problem, because neither side can win the conflict by dominating the other. "Third, I think that a political process and dialogue are absolutely essential. You know that, whenever the political process breaks down, there's going to be violence on the ground. That's just the nature of this conflict.

"Fourthly, I think it's hard-liners on both sides who are the biggest impediment to the development of a fair settlement. And those hard-liners include Arabs who will not accept Israel's right to exist, and they include Israelis who want to keep the land.

"And the fifth truism is that, it is really only the U.S. that can be an honest broker because of our special relationship with Israel.

"Therefore, if you accept those as truisms, then land for peace under [UN Resolutions] 242 and 338 is really the only basis upon which the dispute can be settled."

What do you think about the perception that the apparent weakness of the U.S., including in light of its failure in the Middle Eastern arena, including Iran, is increasing the danger to America soldiers?

"I'm not sure that I'd go that far, but I tell you this: The failure of the U.S., Israel and the Arabs to achieve a responsible settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute is certainly one recruiting tool, there's no doubt about that. But is that why we have Arab terrorists, because Israel is an ally of the U.S.?"

Would you get tougher on Iran, on both supporting terrorism and of course the nuclear program?

"I would get tougher through the application of increasingly tough sanctions. I don't see a military solution there, quite frankly, and I think that this recent covert action, the report of the cyber-security efforts we've been making, seems to me to be the way to confront the threat of Iran. It isn't an easy matter of a military strike. It's not like the Osirak reactor [in Iraq] in 1981.

"I don't think the U.S. is growing weaker. I think other countries are catching up and growing stronger, if you're talking about China, Brazil, India, for instance ... They're catching up - and why? They're catching up because they've adopted our paradigm, our paradigm of democracy and free markets. So I think there's no country in the world, today or in the foreseeable future, that can match us militarily, and our ability to project power across oceans and continents."