Daniel Ben Simon: Baker Redux

By Daniel Ben Simon

One Friday afternoon 15 years ago, the U.S. secretary of state, James Baker, sat in prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s bureau in Jerusalem and discussed with him the need to implement the diplomatic initiative that bore his name. Great tension prevailed in the room. One of the Israeli participants has related that Shamir evinced impatience and restlessness and constantly looked at his watch. "He was shocked by the secretary of state’s style of speaking and his bluntness," added the source. This was yet another in the series of the secretary’s pressuring visits, aimed at persuading Israeli leaders to agree to conduct direct talks with Palestinian representatives. Israel demanded that talks be held only with Palestinians living in the territories; the Americans insisted on including representatives from the Palestinian diaspora, so as to give official recognition to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had its headquarters in Tunis. Prior to that, the unity government in which the Labor party had participated had broken up because of disagreement on this issue.

The watch hands moved slowly. One of the participants in the meeting suggested that it be stopped because of the approach of the Sabbath. After ascertaining the precise time that the Sabbath would begin, Baker insisted on continuing. Suddenly an American official came into the bureau and whispered something into the ear of one of the secretary’s aides, who transmitted the contents to the secretary. Baker blanched. He rose and in a trembling voice said to the prime minister that he had just been informed that his mother had passed away. He apologized that he would not be able to continue the meeting and left, followed by the other members of the American peace team.

A sigh of relief was heard in the prime minister’s bureau. One of the senior people present thanked God aloud for His intervention, which had saved Israel from Baker’s talons. However, after he recovered from his mother’s death, Baker refused to leave Israel to its own devices. He succeeded in seating its representatives at the Madrid conference next to Palestinian and other Arab delegates. When Israel hardened its heart, he threatened to block the transfer of the special American aid for the absorption of immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

At that time the "Baker initiative" looked to the Likud government like a dangerous attempt on the part of president George H.W. Bush’s administration to force a peace agreement on Israel. Baker was so keen on advancing an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that among Likud members the rumor spread that the man was motivated by anti-Semitism. Otherwise, why was he so indefatigably engaged with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What was wrong with that man, they wondered, that was making him act so obsessively about trying to make the Israelis live in peace? "There is no doubt that this individual is a bit anti-Semitic," asserted a senior person in the prime minister’s bureau, whose feelings reflected Shamir’s. "Let him leave us alone. Is there a dearth of conflicts in the world?" The conflict between the two administrations ended badly and threatened to muddy the relations between Israel and the United States. In June of 1992, Shamir lost the election to Yitzhak Rabin, and half a year later Baker followed him into retirement, together with his boss, the first president Bush. Now, 14 years later, the ghost of James Baker is again hovering above the skies of Jerusalem. Now sitting on Shamir’s chair is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was serving as a junior minister during the days Baker was first haunting Israel. Immediately upon taking up his exalted position, Olmert once again donned his old Likud garments, as though he had never taken them off.

It is no wonder that in Olmert’s immediate environs, paranoid talk about Baker the Terrible is again being heard. Once again, preposterous diversionary maneuvers are being undertaken with the goal of depicting the document that bears his name as hallucinatory. "This is an internal American document that does not concern us," was the prime minister’s description this week of the Baker-Hamilton document.

Why has the Israeli leadership gone on the defensive? Because of Baker’s personality, which radiates aggressive imperiousness, and because for the first time a senior American figure has acknowledged that the absence of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians contributes to the unrest in the Middle East and even beyond it. All that was missing was that someone there would come to the conclusion that this unending conflict is endangering American interests in the region and even beyond it. This linkage resonates in Europe and is endlessly reiterated in the ears of Israeli representatives. Every Jewish child in France can explain the connection between the new Muslim anti-Semitism in his country and the second intifada. Everyone understands what a terrible price this conflict is exacting; it’s only Israel that is insisting on reducing its dimensions as though it were a neighborhood spat.

The attitude toward Israel that is expressed in the Baker-Hamilton document is a direct result of the diplomatic paralysis and the prime minister’s perpetuation of the status quo in all arenas. This is one of the reasons, along with the wretched war in Lebanon, for the mortal blow to his popularity.

Olmert will save himself – and us – only if he starts to implement the desire of the voters who put their trust in him. Only by taking diplomatic initiatives will Olmert be able to dispose of the need to take defensive measures against the Baker-Hamilton report and dispel at least some of the unease that has spread in this country since Ehud Olmert sat down in former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s chair.

-Copy Rights Haaretz (Dec 13, 2006)

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