James Baker: You Can't Force-feed Peace to Israel or the Palestinians

In a special interview, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker says the Israeli-Palestinian situation is a Catch-22, but that's no reason to give up.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Former President George H.W. Bush, left, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, 2011
Former President George H.W. Bush, left, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, 2011Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

James Addison Baker III will be inscribed in the annals of Jewish history, among other reasons, for two unforgettable statements. The first – “F**k the Jews, they didn’t vote for us anyway” – he denies saying. The second, however, is as timely as ever: “Everybody over there should know that the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414; when you're serious about peace, call us.''

The White House switchboard number that Baker angrily highlighted in his testimony before Congress on June 13, 1990 is still active, along with the doubts that he raised at the time about Israel’s willingness to invest a “good faith, affirmative effort” in the peace process. Baker did eventually harness the aftermath of the Gulf War in order to resolve his dispute with Israel over Palestinian representation to the historic Madrid Conference, but he admits that his expectations far exceeded the actual progress that has been made in the ensuing 23 years.

“The Madrid Conference was crucial. It broke the taboo that Arab nations would not talk to Israel, which was tantamount to recognizing Israel's right to exist. I don't think we would have had an Oslo, nor would we have had peace between Jordan and Israel, had we not had Madrid. But when I left office in early 1993, there was a lot of hope that it would lead to more, especially on the multilateral track,” Baker told Haaretz in a telephone interview from his office in Houston, Texas.

Baker served as Secretary of State from early 1989 until the summer of 1992, when his boss, President George Bush Sr., asked him to try and salvage his foundering prospects in the elections. Dennis Ross writes in his book The Missing Peace that Baker realized that he would be leaving his status as “world leader” in order to fight in the political trenches for a lost cause, but his loyalty to Bush ultimately prevailed. It is this allegiance, Ross says, that was the true catalyzer of Baker’s “serious about peace” outburst in the first place: he was overreacting – in Ross’ view – to Democratic Congressman Mel Levine’s rebuke of Bush’s criticism of Israeli housing in East Jerusalem.

In any case, a quarter of a century later, Baker continues to loom large as one of the few Secretaries of State – Henry Kissinger comes to mind – who had the right mix of intelligence, resilience and cunning negotiating skills needed to nudge the obstinate sides to Middle East peacemaking from their hard held positions. The Jewish right views him to this day as toxic, the left prays for an American peacemaker made of similar steel and even the Palestinians long for what historian Rashid Khalidi described in his recent book Brokers of Deceit as Baker’s “mature, evenhanded oversight”.

Baker, for his part, praises the perseverance of his current successor, John Kerry, with whom he has discussed the peace process. “I admire Secretary Kerry for being willing to fail. No secretary of state of the United States of America can succeed unless he's willing to fail. But I don't think that a high profile, all-hands-on deck approach is going to work until we see some indication or evidence that the parties themselves really want to engage and become serious about peace.”

Baker, 84, may have mellowed a bit over the years. He told Akiva Eldar in a 2011 Haaretz interview that President Obama should have been tougher with Israel about a settlements freeze, but says today that “pressure is not particularly helpful with Israel. I don't know how you force a sovereign nation to do something that it sees as very much against its own interest. You can’t force-feed a peace plan, either to Israel or to the Palestinians.”

In Baker’s view, the famous head to head confrontation between the Bush administration and then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over the $10 billion loan guarantees for immigrant absorption was not meant to press Jerusalem for peace concessions but to stand up to threats to bypass the executive branch and undermine its authority. “We did not do that because we were trying to bring the parties together - which ultimately we were successful in doing – but because Shamir told me ‘If you don’t give us these loan guarantees, we’ll get them from Congress. We won’t pay attention to you, the executive branch of your government, we’ll do it with your legislative branch.’”

You can still hear faint echoes of Baker’s outraged reaction to Shamir’s stand; “We said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re damn well not going to do that. You can’t go around the President of the United States.’. We had to knock it down, and we did.”

Baker rebuffs any claim that the loan guarantees standoff played any role in Bush’s electoral defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992. “Our loss was occasioned by a little guy from Dallas, Texas named Ross Perot, who took 19% of the vote. We got 38%, Clinton got 43%. We know Perot was taking two thirds of all of his votes from us, so you take two thirds of 19% and add it to 38% and you've got 51%. So I don't buy that for one minute”

But as one reputed “tough guy” to another, Baker describes Shamir as “a man whose word was absolutely good, and someone with whom I had a wonderful personal relationship even though we disagreed on policy.” He’s a tad less enthusiastic about Shamir’s current successor, Benjamin Netanyahu: “I said publicly when he first became prime minister that I thought that Bibi was the man. He would be the prime minister who would bring peace to his people. But I’m not sure I believe it any more. I would like to believe it, but I haven't seen a lot of indication that that's the case.”

But many people agree with Netanyahu that Israel has no partner for peace, I say. “I think there's some merit to that argument. I was quite familiar with what was going on in Camp David and what was being proposed. I think that's something that the Palestinians should have accepted. On the other hand, that should not prohibit further good faith and serious efforts by Israel to reach a two state solution. I really believe that it's going to be extraordinarily hard, if not impossible, for Israel to maintain her Jewish character and her democratic character as long as she is in occupation of those Arab lands.”

On the Palestinian side, I add, you will be told that the number of Jewish settlers in the territories has doubled and tripled since Madrid. “That's what I used to tell Faisal Husseini when he would bring me the map and show me where the settlements marked in orange were,” Baker chuckles. “I said, ‘If you don't come to the table prepared to talk serious peace, you're going to be bringing American mediators a map within 10 years from now and it’s going to be totally orange’."

“You really have a Catch 22 here. Israel will never enjoy security as long as it occupies the territories. The Palestinians will never achieve their dream of living in peace in their own state alongside Israel as long as there's real lax security. It's a chicken and egg situation. Which comes first? The one big impediment is the hardliners on both sides. You've got Arabs who will not accept Israel's right to exist, and you've got Israelis who want to keep the territories. Those two hardline groups are what make it so extraordinarily difficult.”

“But that doesn't mean,” he adds, “that you throw up your hands and say that the two state solution is dead simply because it's become more difficult to get there.”

Baker finds the debate about negotiations with Hamas “sterile” because “as far as I know, nobody’s asked Israel to talk to Hamas. The Palestinian government supports a two-state solution, so I think that’s a false argument.”” He finds parallel logic between the Palestinian unity government and the “construct” of the Palestinian delegation to Madrid, which, he doesn’t say, allowed the PLO to pull the strings from behind the scenes. “We dealt with Palestinians in the territories,” he recalls. “In those days the PLO was a terrorist organization. We didn't talk to them, I never had a meeting with Yasser Arafat when I was secretary of state. It was the Israelis who first started talking to him.”

Baker, whose law office has extensive ties to Gulf clients, supports Foreign Minister Lieberman’s recent proposal to bring Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries into the peace making process, but only if the two sides first show that they are willing to negotiate seriously. “If you say you've got to have them first before Israel says it's ready to go, that's a formula for not doing anything.”

I ask him whether history would have been different had Israel signed a peace agreement with Syria, which Baker also sought, and, conversely, how does he respond to Israelis who are now giving thanks that such an agreement, which would have seen a withdrawal from the Golan, was not achieved. “I'm not sure history would be different. Because we still would have had the leadership in Syria that we have now. On the other hand, In this day and age, the Golan Heights don't make that much difference, even militarily. I don't buy that. I think that would have been a worthwhile agreement for Israel and one that would have been easier to achieve than the Palestinian agreement, because you have one nation dealing with another nation.”

He supports the administration’s efforts to achieve a nuclear deal with Iran. “I think that the only other alternative is not a very happy one, and that's some sort of military action. I further believe that the only country in the world that can do that successfully is the United States of America. I further believe that if we can't get anywhere in these negotiations and our intelligence people and our military people tell us that Iran is about to weaponize, then we need to do what we need to do, militarily.

“But it would be a disaster, in my view, for Israel to strike out on its own. I don't even know whether you have the capability. Frankly, I doubt it: you came to the Bush administration and asked for overflight rights and inflight refueling capabilities and bunker-busting bombs and they said, ‘No, that's not in the national interests of the United States.’ Then you came to the Obama administration and got the same answer.”

“I think it's extraordinarily important that Iran not get the bomb, not so much because of the threat to you or to the United States or to our moderate Arab allies in the region but because of what it would do to the proliferation regime. If Iran got the bomb, Saudi Arabia would have to get the bomb. Turkey would get the bomb. Who knows? Maybe Egypt and others. I think it would be bad if that happened, and that's why I take sort of a hard line on that.”

Baker mostly supports the administration’s positions on Syria too – “because I think we have been in enough shooting wars in the Middle East for a while” - but he is harshly critical of Obama’s “weak” response in Ukraine. Baker rattles off a list of things he would have done differently – reinstall missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, pave the way for a dramatic expansion of gas exports to Europe and station “significant” armed forces near western Ukraine, the Baltics and Poland “rather than the token forces we’ve done.”

“What's happened there in Ukraine is inconsistent with any concept of a stable world order. We just cannot get back to the days when, if you don't like what's going on in a neighboring country, you roll the tanks.”

Baker refuses to use the word “decline” to describe the change in America’s international stature during the Obama presidency. “But what I would say is that I don't think America is respected by its allies and feared by its adversaries the way it has been in the past, certainly the way it was when Reagan and Bush were there”, and when Baker was there, he neglects to mention.

In a recent article in the Wall street Journal, Baker listed the steps that Obama should take in order to restore order and regain the high ground, including an international conference that would discuss outstanding Middle Eastern conflicts, including Syria and Iraq (though not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, apparently). Baker headed the 2006 Iraq Study Group which recommended a gradual withdrawal of American forces in Iraq and handing over responsibility to the Iraqi army, which some say was the gateway to the current mess. At the time, he was lambasted by neoconservatives and the hawkish right as a “defeatist” and “appeaser”: popular broadcaster Glenn Beck, who recently admitted that opponents of the Iraq war were right and he was wrong, said back then that Baker “was waving a white flag”

Baker, also like Kissinger, belongs to what sometimes seems to be a soon-to-be-extinct species of hardnosed centrist Republican realists who are closer to moderate Democrats on matters of foreign policy than they are to the ultra-conservatives who ruled their party ten years ago, to the Tea Party of 2010 or to the now-ascendant isolationists. When I ask Baker who he sees as the best Republican candidate in 2016, he doesn’t hesitate for a moment: “You know how close I am to the Bush family, but I don't know whether he's going to run. [“He” being, of course, former Florida governor Jeb Bush.] If he does run, I think he can get the nomination and he would, in my view, make an excellent president. Of course I'm still very, very close to the family, particularly to his father and to his brother. There's no doubt about where I would be.”

So with this scenario – tantalizing for some, a nightmare for others - the interview comes to an end: Jeb Bush runs, is nominated, wins the elections, comes to the White House and appoints Baker as his special envoy for Middle East peace. The first thing that Baker does is call the White House switchboard to make sure it’s OK and off he goes, all over again. After all, compared to Shimon Peres, he’s still a spring chicken.

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