A new book chronicling the life of former US Secretary of State James Baker shows how US pressure on Israel brought about positive change in the past.
“Three decades have passed since Israeli leaders first met with the Palestinians at a public forum for negotiations in Madrid,” veteran foreign correspondent Jonathan Steele says in an article published by middleeasteye, translated by Watan. It is easy to forget that the concept of a two-state solution, which today seems outdated and unrealistic, was not on the international agenda at the time. At the 1991 conference, the Palestinians were willing to accept some form of limited self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and even agreed to appease Israel by attending the conference as part of a Jordanian delegation. A lot has changed since those days.”
The principal architect of the Madrid Conference was James Baker, the United States Secretary of State. In a comprehensive and well-researched autobiography, The Man Who Ran Washington by Peter Baker and Susan Glaser reveals fascinating details about the maneuvers that led to the conference during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. They spent many hours interviewing Baker and US, Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as reviewing Baker’s diaries and diaries.
James Baker and Bush were the last realists in US foreign policy before the neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party’s ideological “human rights” takeover. As such, they were not afraid to openly disagree with Israeli leaders, and even use the refusal to help as a means of applying pressure.
The book covers other important Middle East issues, including the first Gulf War and the Bush administration’s decision, after the liberation of Kuwait, not to continue to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The authors mention, Bush urged the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam. His words were followed by no action, such as the use of air power, to prevent him from bombing Shiite rebels.
The book also covers the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany, as well as Baker’s role in domestic politics as former President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. But at the heart of its pages on the Middle East is the US relationship with Israel, which under James Baker and Bush has been more controversial than at any time or since.
James Baker has been brutal to Benjamin Netanyahu in a way that the Clinton and Obama administrations have never dared to. Netanyahu, who was Israel’s deputy foreign minister at the time, angered the foreign minister by claiming that the United States was naive in its dealings with the Palestinians. “It is surprising that a superpower like the United States, which was supposed to be a symbol of political justice and international honesty, builds its policy on the basis of distortion and lies,” Netanyahu told the media.
An enraged James Baker ordered his officials to prevent Netanyahu from entering the State Department. When one of Baker’s aides, Dennis Ross, defended that this was a very severe punishment, Baker “just smiled and said no”. In the end, Netanyahu relented and allowed Netanyahu to come and meet with junior officials, but he refused to meet him in person throughout his time in office.
The Israeli program to build settlements in the occupied territories has been a constant source of concern to Baker and Bush. When Yitzhak Shamir, then-Israeli prime minister, told Bush during a White House visit in early 1989 that “settlements shouldn’t be such a problem,” the president erroneously thought this was an Israeli obligation to halt construction. When more settlements were announced two weeks later, Bush felt that Shamir had lied to him and had never been forgiven.
It was not surprising that the issue arose again two years later, on the eve of the Madrid Conference. Shamir was asking the United States to guarantee $10 billion in housing loans for a new wave of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. James Baker and Bush were concerned that the money would be used in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and Baker persuaded Bush to defer loan guarantees.
pressure from AIPAC
In a glimpse into the pressures that would plague subsequent US presidents, James Baker and Bush were regularly targeted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a staunch pro-Israel advocacy group, and its friends in Congress. Accusations of anti-Semitism were exposed.
In May 1989, James Baker said at the AIPAC conference: “For Israel, it is now time to abandon, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of Greater Israel…annexation, halt settlement activity, allow schools to reopen, and connect with Palestinians as neighbors deserving political rights . Bush congratulated Baker on the speech, describing it as frank, strong and honest, but US senators from both parties condemned him. They felt it was a sea change from Reagan’s warm embrace of Israel.
Bush resisted and, a few months later, called for an end to settlement construction not only in the West Bank, but also in East Jerusalem — the first time a US president had referred to housing in the city as settlements.
James Baker has come under regular attack from the pro-Israel lobby. In March 1992, as Bush began his re-election bid, the New York Post published the front page headline: “Baker’s 4-Letter Insult: Secretary of State Tortures Jews at White House Meeting.” In the accompanying article, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch wrote that Baker responded to criticism of the United States’ hard-line approach to Israel by saying, “P***”m. They did not vote for us.” After the word “they”, the newspaper added “the Jews” in parentheses. The quote has been endlessly repeated by Baker’s critics.
The White House and the State Department denied that Baker had said anything of the sort, but new forms of distortion continued to emerge, all while noting that Baker was an anti-Semitic. Jack Kemp, the passionately pro-Israel former congressman who heard the alleged quote and told Koch about it, apologized to Baker years later and claimed Koch had “mischaracterized it”. But the damage was done.
However, Baker’s policies to pressure Israel paid off. In June 1992 Shamir’s Likud party fell out of power in Knesset elections—the direct result, according to a Baker Glaser biography, was Baker’s refusal to provide $10 billion for housing.
“Shamir lost the election in part because he was unable to secure the loan guarantee,” Moshe Arens, Shamir’s hardline former defense minister, told the book’s authors. The Likud was expelled, and Yitzhak Rabin, the leader of the Labor Party, who was more open to negotiating a land-for-peace agreement with the Palestinians, came in. Baker has won.
But history does not repeat itself, and the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are different today, three decades after Baker’s heyday (he is still alive at age 91). It may be that strong American influence on Israel by withholding aid would help the right-wing hardliners in Israel more than the already weakened pro-peace camp in the country, at least in the short term.
But there is no harm in trying the strategy again. The United States has potentially significant leverage over Israel, thanks to the money it constantly injects. And Israel’s initial resistance to threats of US sanctions may collapse while reminding Israeli voters that Israel needs the United States far more than the United States needs Israel.
The lesson of Baker’s approach is clear: US pressure on Israel has succeeded in bringing about positive change in the past. It must be applied to do it again.
** About the author Jonathan Steele:
- Veteran foreign correspondent and author of wide-ranging studies on international relations.
- He was the Guardian’s Washington bureau chief in the late 1970s, and its Moscow bureau chief during the collapse of communism.
- Educated at Cambridge and Yale Universities, he has written books on Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, South Africa, and Germany, including Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq (IBTauris 2008) and Ghosts of Afghanistan: the Haunted Battleground (Portobello Books 2011).
Follow our YouTube channel to see all the new
Click here and hit the subscribe button