JERUSALEM (Dec. 2)
Israelis were profoundly shocked by President Bush’s announcement Friday that he was ready to send Secretary of State James Baker to Baghdad for talks with Saddam Hussein and also willing to meet in Washington with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
The unexpected development was discussed by deeply troubled Cabinet ministers Sunday at their weekly meeting.
While no one agreed with Science and Energy Minister Yuval Ne’eman’s characterization of Baker’s mission as a “Munich,” the delicacy of Israel’s position was stressed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in his summary of events.
Shamir spoke with caution. But according to reports from the Cabinet room, the prime minister noted sourly that the American move was a complete surprise to Israel.
As several newspapers pointed out, Shamir once again was not among the regional leaders Bush telephoned personally over the weekend to explain his actions, though Baker did send a letter containing reassurances.
Bush’s overture to Iraq was made in the context of a hard-won U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing member states to use force to evict forces from Kuwait if they have not withdrawn by Jan. 15.
The Iraqis, after a show of swagger, readily accepted the offer. They suggested that the talks also deal with the issue of a Palestinian homeland but got a strong rebuff on that from Vice President Dan Quayle.
Bush stressed at his Friday news conference that Baker’s journey “isn’t a trip of concession” and pledged the United States will never waver from its demands that Iraq get out of Kuwait, restore the legitimate government and free all hostages.
BAKER ATTEMPTS TO REASSURE ISRAEL
Baker said in an NBC television appearance Sunday that the only reward Saddam Hussein could expect if he complied fully with every U.N. resolution was that the United States would not attack him.
But many Israeli commentators seem convinced that the United States is in fact about to negotiate with the Iraqi leader, which it had said it would never do.
Despite tough language emanating from Washington, some observers here surmise the way has been opened to reach some sort of mutual face-saving deal that might free Kuwait but would leave Iraqi military power intact and a greater menace than ever to Israel.
Those fears evidently were not entirely relieved by Baker’s letter to Foreign Minister David Levy over the weekend.
Levy did not disclose its contents. He told reporters Sunday that the secretary of state sought to “calm and reassure” Israel and that he had good reason to believe that U.S. “policy regarding Iraqi aggression has not changed.”
The foreign minister stressed at a meeting Sunday with visiting U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R- Utah) that the entire region would be imperiled if Hussein is left with his unconventional military potential intact.
The reference was to his ability to wage chemical warfare and the possibility of his acquiring nuclear weapons in the near future.
Levy said he also was convinced that the United States remains steadfastly opposed to any linkage between the Kuwait issue and the dispute over Israel’s retention of the territories it captured in 1967.
VICE PRESIDENT REJECTS LINKAGE
He may have been referring to Quayle’s statement Saturday on the Cable News Network that while Baker would be willing “to discuss all aspects of the Gulf crisis” on his visit to Baghdad, “Palestine is not an issue on the table.”
“There is no linkage,” Quayle emphasized.
In that connection, however, Davar columnist Amir Oren focused Sunday on the proximity of Shamir’s upcoming private meeting with Bush to the projected U.S.-Iraqi dialogue in Washington, Baghdad or both places.
Bush said he would be willing to send Baker to meet with Hussein “at a mutually convenient time” between Dec. 15 and Jan. He invited the Iraqi foreign minister to meet him in Washington during the latter part of the week of Dec. 10.
Bush is scheduled to meet with Shamir at the White House on Dec. 11.
This very coincidence will strengthen the impression that Israel wants most to avoid: that there is linkage between the Persian Gulf crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Oren wrote in the Labor Party-affiliated daily.
Dan Margalit, a leading political columnist in Ha’aretz, argued that Bush made his gesture toward Baghdad to win over sections of U.S. domestic opinion not reconciled to the use of force against Iraq.
He concluded that while Bush and Baker have not abandoned their declared goal of forcing Iraq out of Kuwait, the offer to negotiate implies that they are forgoing the more far-reaching goal of ridding the region of Hussein and his huge army with its dangerous military potential.
Margalit reflected a mounting fear in Israel that time is running out for a hard-line stance against Iraq.
DIPLOMATIC AND DOMESTIC REASONS
The Agudah Yisrael party newspaper Hamodia said Bush’s decision is “very worrying for Israel, because from Israel’s viewpoint, the best solution would be the elimination of Iraq’s aggressive power, so that it cannot in the future be a threat to Israel.”
The Agudah joined Shamir’s Likud-led coalition on Nov. 18 and its newspaper could be said now to reflect government views.
Bush’s move seems to have been driven by both diplomatic and domestic political needs.
He said at his news conference that he was “going the extra step” for peace to “de-isolate” Hussein and make sure he had received the message that nothing short of total withdrawal from Kuwait would prevent war.
But the move also was needed to quell concern in the United States that the president was rushing headlong into war. The initiative, moreover, was intended to solidify the coalition against Iraq by addressing complaints that insufficient emphasis was being placed on the possibilities for peace.