Baker Speech Sends Shock Waves Through Israeli Political Circles

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker sent shock waves through Jerusalem with his plainly unexpected and blunt call to Israel on Monday to give up its “unrealistic vision” of a Greater Israel and cease settlement activity in the administered territories.

Although initial reaction by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens was restrained, Baker’s address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee galvanized Knesset members. The speech variously drew support or derision for its carefully even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In London, Shamir told reporters that Baker’s remarks were “useless.”

In particular, he told an Israel Radio interviewer, “I do not know how it is possible to speak at all of a ‘Greater Israel.’ Israel is a very small country. We all know that its territory is quite limited. It really is ironic to speak of a ‘Greater Israel.’ “

Shamir added that he does not “see any connection between settlements and the issue of the peace process.”

As a habit, Shamir avoids using the phrase “Greater Israel,” which is employed by those who favor including the West Bank and Gaza Strip within Israeli borders. But he has rejected the principle of trading land for peace, and he supports the Jewish settlement movement in the territories.

‘WE REALIZE OUR DREAMS’

In Brussels, Arens told Israel Radio that “everyone outside Israel has the right to comment on our dreams.”

He added, however, that “they are our dreams. It is our country that is in question. We have proven that we realize our dreams.”

Speaking before the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington, Baker called on both Israel and the Palestinians to seek peace by abandoning their unrealistic dreams.

He said Israel should “lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel.”

“Forswear annexation. Stop settlement activity. Allow schools to open,” Baker implored the Israelis.

Baker’s unvarnished espousal of “land for peace” — the most unequivocal articulation to date of the Bush administration’s thoughts on the Middle East conflict — furnished new ammunition in the intensifying Israeli domestic debate.

In a relatively moderate official statement, the Likud said Tuesday that Baker was, in effect, proposing that Israel forgo its security and return to “shrunken” borders.

The Likud defended the settlements by saying that increasing the number of Jews living in the territories is an important factor in strengthening Israel and is in accord with the principles of the unity government.

In the Knesset, the 30 members of the “Eretz Yisrael Front” urged that the government reject Baker’s remarks. It charged that Baker’s speech should be seen as a direct result of Israel’s failure to quell the Palestinian uprising.

By contrast, Haim Ramon, the dovish chairman of the Labor Party Knesset faction, criticized Shamir for “misleading the Israeli public by pretending there is broad agreement with Washington.”

A SHOWDOWN IN THE LIKUD

Yossi Sarid of the left-wing Citizens’ Rights Movement called the remarks “desirable and right.”

Beyond the predictable partisan debate, however, there is strife within Shamir’s own Likud bloc.

Shamir’s peace initiative is facing a bruising challenge from Likud Cabinet Ministers Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Moda’i. They will doubtless cite Baker’s remarks to show that the prime minister’s stated attempt to win favor in Washington is failing.

Shamir has threatened to resign if the Likud fails to back his plan. The showdown will occur during the Likud’s mammoth Central Committee meeting, tentatively scheduled for early June.

At his London news conference, Shamir maintained that the Bush administration was basically supportive of his initiative, despite differences of opinion over the settlements.

He said he was confident that those differences could be resolved “between friends.”

(The Jewish Chronicle in London contributed to this report.)

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