U.S. Secretary of State James Baker landed in Riyadh on March 8, 1991, a few days after the end of the Gulf War. The United States had just liberated Kuwait and, though it was loath to admit it, saved Saudi Arabia. Despite the dismay voiced by regional leaders at the U.S. decision to allow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to remain in power, American prestige was at its peak. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and even Syria – which had joined the U.S.-led coalition – all viewed Baker as a representative of the superpower that would henceforth dominate the Middle East.
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Nonetheless, Saudi King Fahd (the brother of the current King Salman) took Baker and his assistants by surprise. The top U.S. diplomat told the king about State Department plans to launch a “dual track” peace process, in which negotiations on the Palestinian problem would run parallel to talks about normalization between Israel and the Arab world.
Baker also proposed a series of confidence-building measures – widely referred to then by their “CBM” acronym – including steps such as ending the boycott on Israel; repealing the UN “Zionism is Racism” resolution; and allowing low-level diplomatic contacts, as well as intelligence sharing, on regional security.
The U.S. diplomat saw Saudi Arabia as the indispensable key to his plan’s success, but didn’t expect to hear anything more from Fahd than routine vague expressions of support that would leave Saudi Arabia enough wiggle room to backtrack in the future.
When Fahd started to reply, Baker wrote in his memoirs that he “sensed a sea change in [the king’s] tone, a confidence that had not been present before. For the first time, he seemed prepared to adopt a leadership position on the peace process.”
King Fahd told him: “I want once and for all to reach a settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem. The Palestinian-Israeli problem is the crux of all our problems. It gives Saddam and others, like Gadhafi, material on which to promote themselves. It must be solved.”
The Saudi monarch told the flabbergasted Baker that if a homeland could be found for the Palestinians, he was prepared to approve full economic and diplomatic relations with Israel.
Though it may sound banal today, Fahd’s pledge was nothing less than revolutionary. Eleven years before it was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut, 16 years before it was re-endorsed at an Arab summit in Riyadh, and 26 years before it was ratified once again in Amman, in March, the principles of the Saudi Peace Initiative, now known as the Arab Peace Initiative, were laid out to Baker.
Now, these principles are the platform for the peace efforts of President Donald Trump, including the two tracks that are meant to strengthen and complement each other, and the CBMs that are supposed to allay mutual suspicions and build trust in the process.
The Saudis were just as eager then as they are now to ingratiate themselves with the Americans and to build on their ties with Washington to assert regional prominence.
The Palestinians were just as weak as they are now, in the wake of Yasser Arafat’s strategic blunder of supporting Saddam Hussein, and were left with no choice but to succumb to American dictates. And while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly lacks the steely resolve of his predecessor Yitzhak Shamir, his right-wing coalition is far more rigid than Shamir’s was.
Shamir’s Likud party included moderate elements that have since been purged from the party, while Netanyahu’s Likud resembles the extreme right-wing parties that ultimately brought Shamir’s government down for the modest tactical concessions he made at the time.
Of course, other things have changed fundamentally.
Saudi Arabia and Israel were not joined together by a common fear of Iran as they are today. Baker’s mission took place before the 1993 Oslo Accords and Israel’s recognition of the PLO, which means Baker had to spend enormous time and energy putting together a Palestinian representation that would be acceptable to Shamir, even if it was part of a joint delegation with Jordan.
There were only 80,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, compared to some 500,000 today. And while the first intifada was entering its fourth year, it never reached the monstrous levels of the second intifada suicide bombings a decade later, and thus sparked diametrically opposed reactions in the mainstream of Israeli public opinion. Then, more and more Israelis came to the conclusion that the occupation must end; later, they became increasingly convinced there is no one and nothing to discuss.
Nonetheless, it is worth noting the great efforts that Baker had to invest to get from Fahd’s emphatic promises in March 1991, which were identical to those made by King Salman to Trump this week, to the Madrid Conference that convened eight months later – and how these efforts came to naught within a very short time. Baker, who came into office swearing he would never emulate the shuttle diplomacy of his predecessors Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, had no choice but to come back to the Middle East nine times to negotiate the terms of reference for the Madrid Conference, the Letter of Invitation that would be sent out to the sides, and the assurances Washington was prepared to give in order to persuade them to attend.
Baker had to contend with what he repeatedly describes as the souk – the Middle Eastern bazaar: He dealt with the elusive Saudis, whose willingness to step out on a limb never equaled the resoluteness of King Fahd’s initial commitment; with Palestinians, who were so scared of making decisions that they backtracked on those they’d already made; and with Israelis, especially Shamir, who was a tough cookie who took one step forward and two steps back, and was ultimately dragged to Madrid kicking and screaming.
And even though more than a quarter of a century has passed, some of the obstacles and dilemmas faced by Baker will challenge Trump’s advisers no less.
Most of them fall under the category of the chicken or the egg – what comes first and what later, who will dare to make the first concessions and risk being left with nothing to show in return. Back then, Israel was also trying to maximize returns from the Arab world while minimizing its own contributions to the Palestinian track. Back then, the Palestinians were also suspicious that Arab states would use them as a cover to normalize relations with Israel and then stab them in the back. Back then, it was also clear that what motivated the Arab countries most was to curry favor with Washington rather than make peace with Jerusalem. And back then, it also became clear, as it did for successive administrations, that even the most determined president cannot impose a solution that the sides don’t want, or craft a compromise that could bridge their irreconcilable differences.
Never mind – to paraphrase Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s famous put–down of his Republican rival Dan Quayle in 1988 – that we all knew James Baker, and Rex Tillerson or Jared Kushner, with all due respect, are not James Baker. Moreover, by a factor of about a billion, we all knew George H.W. Bush, the knowledgeable and calculated president who had served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Ronald Reagan’s vice president for eight years, and that Donald Trump is no Bush Sr. even if you’re on LSD.
Trump’s main advantages over Bush Sr. are that he is only at the start of his first term and not at its end, that he cares for no one and stops at nothing to achieve his aims, and that he is so superficial and full of himself that he doesn’t realize how ludicrous and presumptuous his pretension to achieve Middle East peace really is.
Small wonder that many Americans who followed Trump’s overseas trip – including many American Jews – were dumbstruck by the plaudits Trump was picking up in Riyadh, and especially in Jerusalem. They were aghast at Trump’s portrayal as a president with a coherent strategy who was realigning the Arab world and launching a renewed peace process. They were perplexed by Trump’s apparent success in making Netanyahu his groupie, and by his acceptance as a champion of Israel who was infinitely preferable to his predecessor, President Barack Obama. They could not reconcile the accolades he received in the Middle East with their own revulsion with the president’s behavior back home. They were suffering, collectively, from an acute case of cognitive dissonance.
Admittedly, it’s hard to understate the enormous gap between Trump’s triumphs in the region and the incessant blows he has sustained at home. While Trump was dancing with swords in Riyadh, the Washington Post revealed he had tried to strong-arm intelligence chiefs to vouch for his innocence in the Russia probe. As Trump was shoving his hands deep into the Western Wall and bowing his head solemnly at Yad Vashem, former CIA chief John Brennan added yet another layer of suspicion that Trump’s campaign staff had been coordinating with the Russians, if not directly being managed by them. As he was moving from the pope in Rome to NATO in Brussels, his administration submitted a budget proposal that would gut the United States’ already enfeebled social safety net while further enriching the rich. And this was before the Congressional Budget Office found that Trump’s ObamaCare replacement bill would deprive 23 million Americans of health insurance and, you guessed it, make the rich even richer.
“Don’t Israelis read newspapers?” I was asked this week by agitated American-Jewish acquaintances. Are they so isolated from the rest of the world? Don’t they know whom they’re dealing with? Don’t they realize Trump is an irresponsible con man whose word isn’t worth two bits? Haven’t they heard that he’s in so much trouble that his future may already be behind him?
Perhaps some Israelis haven’t heard, I ventured, but most probably think it’s none of their business. Others may not believe reports in the U.S. media about Trump anymore than they accept the Israeli media’s reports on Netanyahu. George W. Bush, I reminded my interlocutors, received a hero’s welcome when he came here in 2008, at a time when his standing throughout the world, including the United States, had hit rock bottom.
Israelis, like most people, look out for themselves. They were happy to escape Obama’s disapproving sermons and were even happier to be on the receiving end of Trump’s unabashed expressions of sympathy. And they don’t believe he will be the one who will force them to make concessions that they, or at least their government, don’t want to.
The safe bet is that just as the Madrid Conference convened with much fanfare and ultimately came to nothing, Trump’s peace initiative will run into the same insurmountable wall. The working assumption is that “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun,” as Ecclesiastes noted. And if it turns out that Trump, the arrogant and deceitful misogynist, is the Special One – as soccer’s equally insufferable manager Jose Mourinho is known – and the president who succeeds where his infinitely more qualified predecessors failed, it will be a miracle from heaven but even more an insult to everyone’s intelligence.