Menu JTA Search

Analysis: Peace Process Put at Risk by Likely Switch at Top of State Department

The anticipated departure of Secretary of State James Baker from his post leaves a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the immediate fate of the Middle East peace talks.

While analysts predict Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger will assume Baker’s position, many doubt he will be able to take on what has become Baker’s personal mission to bring peace to the conflict-riddled region.

Perhaps the only consensus on the impact of the change is that it will be disruptive to the peace process. But several experts believe the peace talks will stay on their current course, albeit at a slowed pace, and that they will continue to reflect Baker’s distinct imprint.

It is all but certain Baker will give up his portfolio sometime after next week’s visit by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and will move to the White House so he can help the president put his floundering re-election campaign on track.

Of course, the timing of the shift is almost painfully ironic. Following the Israeli election of a more flexible leader in Rabin, the Arab-Israeli peace talks appear uniquely ripe to bear fruit and testify to George Bush’s foreign policy acumen.

But at the same moment the man most responsible for cultivating them is poised to leave the field and the fate of the talks in doubt.

The uncertainty Baker’s move injects into the peace process was illustrated in the response he found on his trip to the region last month.

In the Arab capitals, in particular, he and his entourage were peppered with anxious questions about his plans and suggestions that meaningful action would be suspended. Baker sought to quell the anxiety, denying any change was imminent.

BAKER’S DEPARTURE FROM STATE MAY HURT BUSH

But most observers agree that the secretary’s shift will disrupt the process and some say it could hurt the president.

“Baker’s leaving will cause an enormous vacuum in the process,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a policy adviser for the Carter administration.

“There will be a severe interruption at a time when Israel wants to move rapidly. Baker’s credibility with the Arabs has been developed and can’t be built (by a successor) overnight,” he said.

Eizenstat said it proves the president’s political desperation. “George Bush said he would do anything to get re-elected. That evidently includes imperiling the peace process just when the parties are ready to move. It’s a travesty and a tragedy,” he said.

Some, however, believe Baker is so loath to relinquish his role as peace broker he will manage to keep a hand in it, even if he cannot travel far from the embattled Oval Office.

As evidence, they point to the fact that the next round of talks in late August will be in Washington, rather than Rome, as had been initially planned.

“This is one area of foreign policy where he will be missed,” said Robert Hunter, vice president for regional programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But all signs indicate Baker will not give up his negotiating role, said Hunter, though “wearing two hats will be a problem and (eventually may become) an intolerable role.”

“Baker has invested a lot in the process and illustrates what can be done with personal intervention at the highest level,” said Robert Satloff, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He has proven his ability to twist arms velvetly.”

Satloff also does not believe Baker will depart the scene. “I don’t believe Baker could divorce himself” from the process, he said.

“If Baker were to drop out, there would be a loss of momentum,” said Alfred Moses, president of the American Jewish Committee. “No one else can carry the freight quite like he can. He is in a unique position because both sides know he speaks for the president.”

Moses said that with Baker occupied with presidential re-election politics and unable to travel, the talks would continue but at a slower pace than they would otherwise.

Moses, who just returned from a trip to Israel where he met with top leaders, said the assumption there is that Baker will exit formally but will keep his stamp on the process.

The scenario most widely pictured is that Baker will resign his post and Deputy Secretary Eagleburger will take over Baker’s function. Eagleburger is expected to be named only acting secretary to avoid formal confirmation hearings.

Such hearings, the thinking goes, could too easily become a Democratic fishing expedition into the administration’s troubling prewar policies with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Foreign policy analysts have the highest praise for Eagleburger, a former top aide of Henry Kissinger whom they call a consummate diplomat and public servant. But they point out that his expertise and experience lie in Europe and not the Middle East.

Some therefore conclude that if Eagleburger is charged with brokering the peace talks, he would be only a figurehead executing the already well-defined Bush-Baker policies. They say he will have too many other responsibilities and is not in good enough health to devote as much time and personal energy to the talks as Baker has.

BAKER MAY TAKE TOP AIDES WITH HIM

His role also would be affected by how many close key aides, such as Dennis Ross, Baker takes with him to the White House and how many he leaves behind. Ross is director of policy planning at the State Department and has been deeply involved in the peace process.

The unknowns aside, it will be a tall order for Eagleburger to follow in Baker’s footsteps in territory where the secretary has laid such a profound claim and where he brings the authority of the president to bear.

Eagleburger, who turned 62 last Saturday, has a vast portfolio of diplomatic experience in Europe, with a special emphasis on Yugoslavia.

His responsibility for that wartorn area continues today along with the charge of providing aid to the republics of the former Soviet Union.

Eagleburger is not part of Baker’s or Bush’s inner circles of policy advisers. But he is known and trusted by Israel, with which he is said to have a special relationship.

He was picked for the sensitive mission of persuading Israeli leaders during the Persian Gulf War last year to exercise military restraint in the face of Iraqi missile attacks and to sign agreements to share U.S. intelligence more closely.

While he is seen more as a professional diplomat than as pro-Israel, he does not have close ties or a track record with Arab leaders, which observers say is a serious liability in the delicate process of Middle East negotiation.

“He has more credibility with the Israeli side than with the Arabs but (that is because) he hasn’t cultivated it. Europe is his longstanding area of expertise,” said Morris Amitay, a friend and colleague of Eagleburger’s in the State Department in the early 1960s who now runs a pro-Israel political action committee in Washington.

“A negotiating role requires extensive personal involvement and investment,” said Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It doesn’t come instantly.”

Also, said Hunter, “uniquely in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, the negotiator must be a clear and visible and credible surrogate for the president, and everyone knows (Eagleburger is) not close to the president.”

Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, had ringing praise for Eagleburger. He called him a “foreign service officer with a difference,” someone with “a keen sense of the national interest.”

NEXT STORY