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News Analysis: Baker Trip Yields No Breakthroughs, but Creates an Atmosphere of Hope

March 14, 1991
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U.S. Secretary of State James Baker has succeeded in a few crowded days in creating an atmosphere of hopeful expectation on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It is an ingredient notably absent for years from this region and a vital first step toward advancing the ambitious goals set forth by President Bush, who has indicated he wants to visit the region himself in the near future.

One idea extensively discussed by Baker at his meetings here with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and others is for a regional peace conference, as opposed to an international one. It would involve all of the states of the region and the Palestinians, and it would be held under the auspices of the superpowers rather than the United Nations.

Baker will lose no time establishing the context for such an undertaking. His next step, according to Israeli sources, is an attempt to persuade the Kremlin to restore diplomatic relations with Israel. The subject was expected to come up during his visit to Moscow this week.

For the moment, though, the secretary urged his Israeli hosts to provide some “confidence-building” gestures to impress upon the Palestinians and the broader Arab world the sincerity of Israel’s interest in a peace settlement.


He suggested, for example, that Israel consider reopening the universities in the West Bank, which have been shut down by the authorities since the start of the intifada in December 1987.

Baker and his aides also hinted that the Arab states may be prepared to make concomitant gestures, such as ending their longtime trade boycott of Israel.

Such moves do not, of course, address the fundamental issue of land for peace, the formula firmly endorsed by Bush in his March 6 speech to a joint session of Congress.

But they advance Washington’s strategy, which is to create a climate of peacemaking on both sides of the conflict before plunging into the thicket of the peace terms themselves.

Plainly, Baker’s swing through Saudi Arabia, where he met last weekend with eight Arab foreign ministers, and his stop in Egypt overnight Sunday did not produce dramatic breakthroughs.

He admitted as much here Monday night, when, at a news conference with “my friend David,” as he called Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, Baker spoke of the prospect of long, arduous diplomacy in the months ahead.

By the same token, the secretary did not flinch from that prospect. Nor did he avoid searching questions as to whether Washington is prepared to invest the requisite levels of American prestige and commitment.

In fact, Baker has elevated the profile of the American diplomatic initiative to a much higher level than most observers expected.

Reporters inevitably were reminded of Henry Kissinger’s ubiquitous “shuttle diplomacy” of the 1970s to arrange truces following the Yom Kippur War. Baker did not demur at the analogy.

In a tactical move designed to elicit forthcoming responses from Israel, Baker backed the Shamir government’s positions on at least two elements of the unfolding peace process:

* He warmly congratulated the government for reaffirming its own May 1989 peace plan and went out of his way to pronounce that plan still valid and a working basis for progress.

* He supported Shamir’s desire for a “two-track approach,” in which the Arab states would be asked to normalize relations with Israel at the same time as Israel negotiates a settlement with the Palestinians.


That simultaneous effort was an element of Israel’s 1989 initiative that did not get much attention at the time because the U.S. administration focused on the innovative plan for Palestinian elections.

In the wake of the Persian Gulf war and the cohesion shown by the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, Baker apparently believes conditions are ripe for Israel and key Arab states to move toward non-belligerency and peace in tandem with Israeli-Palestinian talks.

But there is a rocky road ahead before those generalized principles begin to be translated into practice.

In Israel, the process may well lead to a breakup of the present governing coalition. Hardline elements within the ruling Likud party are already protesting over what they perceive to be a weakening of resolve to make no territorial concessions.

At the same time, some of the religious parties in the government are urging greater flexibility.

There was a public hint of disagreement with the U.S ideas during Baker’s visit when Shamir’s media spokesman, Avi Pazner, observed that Israel preferred to give “priority” to talks with the Arab states over talks with the Palestinians.

That attitude could create a “Catch-22” situation, because the Arab states condition their readiness to make peace with Israel on the Jewish state’s ability to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians.


Baker got a firsthand look at the tremendous obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement during his stay in Israel.

A pall was cast over the visit before it even began, when a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip on Sunday brutally stabbed four Israeli women to death near a children’s playground in Jerusalem.

The secretary went out of his way to express solidarity and sympathy with the victims and their families. He laid wreaths on the graves in an unscheduled ceremony.

But in a speech Tuesday in the Galilee development town of Carmiel, Baker cited such terrorist acts as a compelling reason why “we peacemakers” must not be daunted from seizing the opportunity that the Gulf war victory had presented.

Baker’s meeting on Tuesday with 10 local Palestinian leaders at the American Consulate in western Jerusalem was seen by some analysts here as a significant and potentially promising development.

It signaled the emergence of an indigenous, influential Palestinian representation in the administered territories after the Palestine Liberation Organization discredited itself in Washington and other Western capitals by supporting Saddam Hussein.

To be sure, the local Palestinians took pains to let Baker know their meeting with him was by grace of prior approval from Yasir Arafat at PLO headquarters in Tunis.

But U.S. officials said later that this seemed more a ritual incantation than an indication of the true state of affairs within the Palestinian nationalist movement.

Nevertheless, the United States will have to look to the Arab members of its anti-Iraq coalition to help the West Bank and Gaza Strip populations break loose from the grip the PLO has had on the Palestinians for decades.

Baker suggested that Israel could help greatly in that direction by easing certain restrictions in the administered territories.

Observers said that if Israel responded to this request with concrete measures, it would be seen as an achievement for Baker personally and would improve the prospects of an indigenous Palestinian leadership evolving.

Israeli sources said Wednesday that Shamir was pleased with the way Baker’s visit went. And Foreign Minister Levy made no secret of his satisfaction.

The Americans, for their part, stressed at news briefings that Shamir did not actually say “no” to any of the secretary’s ideas.

At this sensitive initial stage, that was about the best which could be hoped for. The Americans departed Wednesday morning gratified that progress had been made, if only in the realm of “atmospherics.”

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