WASHINGTON (Jun. 13)
Secretary of State James Baker denounced officials in Israel’s new Likud-led government Wednesday for implying that Israel will not talk to the Palestinians unless they accede to Israeli positions in advance.
“If that’s going to be the approach and that’s going to be the attitude, there’s won’t be any dialogue and there won’t be any peace,” Baker told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
He then recited the telephone number for the White House switchboard and told Israel, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”
The secretary’s ire apparently was raised by remarks Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir made in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, published Wednesday.
The Likud leader was quoted as saying there is “nothing to discuss with those among the Palestinian Arab circles who are opposed to autonomy.”
He also was quoted as saying, “I want to make clear that a dialogue between Israel and Arab representatives of Judea, Samaria and Gaza cannot succeed without prior agreement to advance within the framework of Camp David, that is, autonomy.”
“Autonomy” refers to an arrangement under which Palestinians would be able to exercise a degree of self-rule over all matters except security and foreign affairs. The proposal falls far short of Palestinian aspirations for independence.
The Israeli government’s position until now has been that it would enter negotiations with an elected Palestinian delegation without preconditions, and that both sides would be free to bring whatever proposals they like to the bargaining table.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Moshe Arad, assured a largely Jewish audience here Monday night that there would be no change in the government’s peace policy.
BAKER EXPRESSES FRUSTRATION
Speaking at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee only hours after the Knesset had approved Shamir’s coalition, Arad said the new government is committed “to pursuing the peace process on the basis of the Camp David accords and of the previous national unity government’s diplomatic initiative, in all of its aspects.”
The ambassador said Israel wants to encourage Palestinians to enter negotiations with Israel “from which they would emerge with perhaps less than they dream of — but far more than they have now in the way of autonomy.”
Baker’s remarks, his most outspoken criticism of Israel to date, were made Wednesday after Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.) tried to pin the blame on the Bush administration for Israel’s refusal to accept Baker’s own proposal for Israeli-Palestinian talks in Cairo.
Levine claimed there would likely have been such talks had President Bush not made “intemperate remarks” expressing concern about Jewish “settlements” in East Jerusalem.
But the secretary of state intimated that the United States had bent over backward to accommodate Israeli concerns, and he suggested that Israel was dragging its feet to avoid peace talks.
Baker said that before the Israeli government collapsed in March, the United States and Israel were “close” to resolving various obstacles to convening the talks in Cairo.
They had discussed meeting Shamir’s opposition to having residents of East Jerusalem represented in the Palestinian delegation by including only those Palestinians with “dual addresses” in East Jerusalem and the territories, Baker said.
They had also discussed the inclusion of specific Palestinians that Israel had deported, he added. “That’s how close we got.”
Baker said the Palestinians were “prepared to talk to Israel,” and “it’s hard for us to understand why we did not get a ‘yes’ answer” from the then-unity government to start the talks.
The peace process is “perhaps more important to Israel than to anybody,” he said.
PLO DIALOGUE ‘IN JEOPARDY’
Baker’s comments to the House panel appeared to be the latest indication of his personal frustration at not being able to advance the peace process beyond the point it was at when the Israeli government collapsed.
For months, the United States has been unable to resume the discussions while waiting for a new Israeli government to emerge. With the formation of the new Likud-led government Sunday, the administration has been hoping to resume that process.
But Rep. Levine, a longtime supporter of Israel, cautioned the secretary Wednesday that public pressure on the Shamir regime would not accelerate the process and, in fact, “undermines” progress the United States has made privately.
Shamir wants to improve his “personal relationship” with President Bush, Levine claimed, observing that the Bush-Shamir relationship is “obviously not the closest.”
Some analysts speculated Wednesday that Baker’s tough rhetoric could be aimed at balancing an imminent decision to cut off the U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Baker told the House panel Wednesday that, while the United States had not made a decision, “the future of the dialogue is in great jeopardy.”
But the administration appeared to be holding out hope that the PLO would still meet U.S. demands to denounce the May 30 attempted raid on Tel Aviv by a PLO constituent group, the Palestine Liberation Front.
“I want to sec that terrorist act condemned and those who did it condemned;” President Bush declared Tuesday.
A well-placed State Department source said Wednesday that Baker’s remarks were not part of a balancing act, and that the secretary was “genuinely frustrated” with the slow pace of the peace process.
The source also strongly denied news reports Wednesday that the United States had offered to upgrade its dialogue with the PLO if it condemned the May 30 raid and expelled Mohammed (Abul) Abbas, the head of the Palestine Liberation Front, from the PLO executive committee.
In New York, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said it had received assurances from the “highest levels” of the administration that no such deal was offered.