Baker book recalls turbulence behind Middle East peace process In interview, he urges Israeli pact with Syria

September 26, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that will be signed here Thursday has its roots in bare-knuckled diplomacy that helped topple an Israeli government, produced bitter strains between U.S. policy-makers and American Jews, and convinced Palestinian moderates they were assassination targets.

In a new book about his years as secretary of state, 1989 to 1992, James A. Baker III details a three-year wrangle to foster a Middle East peace process that included banning an Israeli deputy foreign minister from the State Department and threatening to expel Israel's ambassador to Washington, hours of frustration with Syrian President Hafez el Assad, and shouting matches with both Syrians and Palestinians.

"I am sick and tired of this. With you people, the souk never closes," Mr. Baker railed at Palestinian negotiators at one point, referring to the traditional Arab bazaar. Earlier, a Palestinian negotiator voiced near-certainty of being killed by Israeli extremists. "You're talking to a dead man," Faisal Husseini told Mr. Baker.

Mr. Baker's shouts, threats and relentless pressure paid off in November 1991, when Israelis and Arabs sat face to face in Madrid, Spain, at a conference that opened a new era of Middle East peacemaking.

To Mr. Baker, this affirmed the theme of the book, "The Politics of Diplomacy": International relations are fundamentally relations between politicians. Making them work requires confrontational tactics and an understanding of your own, and the other side's, domestic constraints.

Some strains from the Baker years persist.

Israel's conservative Likud coalition, ousted three years ago, has beefed up its lobbying clout in Washington and forged ties with Orthodox American Jews and Republican leaders. The party is determined to prevent a repeat of what happened three years ago, when former President George Bush and Mr. Baker successfully blocked $10 billion in loan guarantees and Israel refused to freeze Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

The result of this lobbying strength is a new congressional threat to scale back or halt American aid to the Palestinians. Likud also helps fuel a simmering dispute over American policy toward Jerusalem and growing opposition to the stationing of American troops on the Golan Heights, a plan originally offered by Mr. Baker, to cement an eventual Israeli-Syrian peace.

For Mr. Baker, the whole experience ended in disappointment. Having launched the peace process between Israel and the Arabs, he was long out of office before it produced any concrete results. He was actually derailed from pursuing his goal when Mr. Bush tapped him to run his flagging 1992 re-election campaign.

After President Clinton's inauguration, Mr. Baker slipped into luxurious obscurity as a Washington lawyer, toying with and then abandoning the idea of seeking the White House himself.

Now, he warns that the goal of a comprehensive Mideast peace accord that eluded him could also elude his successors, unless they act fast to secure an agreement between Israel and Syria.

"I'm not sure they have as much time left as some would suggest they do," he said in an interview yesterday at his law office. "But there is an agreement there to be had.

"And unless there's a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, there's not going to be full peace, comprehensive peace, and Israel will not be able to enjoy the fruits of peace with Jordan and [with] the Palestinians."

What may be Mr. Baker's most enduring achievement sprang from something he initially tried to avoid. He had seen previous secretaries of state sucked hopelessly into the Middle East quagmire, and took seriously a warning from former President Richard M. Nixon: "The Middle East is insoluble. Stay away from it."

His first reluctant foray reinforced that view. After getting off on a wrong foot with American Jewish leaders, he failed to get Israelis and Palestinians moving toward direct negotiations and ended up thinking that then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir "was trying to strangle the U.S. initiative in its cradle."

After Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the administration of distortion and lies, Mr. Baker barred him from the State Department. A new American peace effort, he vowed, would have to await "a new Israeli prime minister and another secretary of state."

But the 1991 Persian Gulf war, which allied the United States, Syria and other Arab states against Iraq, dragged him back in. Another driving force was the small, semi-permanent team of Middle East peacemakers in the State Department, led by one of his top aides, Dennis B. Ross, to whom the goal of regional peace is a lifelong commitment. Mr. Ross is now the top Mideast adviser to Secretary of State Warren Christopher and President Clinton.

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