Baker’s Move to the White House Not Expected to Harm Peace Talks

The departure of Secretary of State James Baker to become White House chief of staff may slow but will not cripple the peace process, say Mideast analysts.

And Jewish organizational leaders emphasize that with the talks now under way for nearly 10 months, the Israelis and the Arabs ought to be able to negotiate on their own.

Baker’s long-rumored departure was officially announced Thursday. It will take effect Aug. 23, the day before peace talks resume in Washington.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, praised Baker for keeping the U.S. role in the peace process constructive. But the talks will not stop when Baker leaves, he said.

Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who will become the acting secretary of state, “certainly can continue that,” said Hoenlein. “He’s someone perceived as a friend to the Jewish community, with close ties.”

Those ties, however, are troubling to some Middle East analysts, who worry that Eagleburger does not have the confidence of the Arab parties or the physical energy that Baker brought to the process. But they say he is a consummate diplomat who will keep the negotiations on their current course.

And in any case, they say, Baker will keep enough of a hand in the process to have it continue to reflect his distinct imprint.

That would please Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress.

‘LESSENS THE U.S. ROLE’

Lifton mourned Baker’s job change as “a loss. He’s been a very effective secretary of state, especially for pushing the peace process forward. I hope he’ll be able to continue that process, that it won’t be slowed.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Baker’s departure from the State Department is not all that bad.

“Once he’s not there, it lessens the U.S. role in the peace talks, which I think is positive. At this point, it’s more important for the parties to see if they can work it out together, without the heavy presence of the State Department,” he said.

Foxman also predicted that Baker’s move to the White House would be an electoral gain for the GOP — winning support from Jews grateful to see Baker go.

Foxman described Baker as “more of a symbol of a hard-nosed, hard-line policy toward Israel” than is Bush.

He noted Baker’s penchant for tough remarks, such as his warning to Jewish leaders early in the Bush administration that Israel must give up its dream of a “Greater Israel,” and his statement on Capitol Hill that Israel should telephone the White House when it gets serious about making peace.

(Cynthia Mann of States News Service in Washington contributed to this report.)

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