'Israel should embrace, not fear, James Baker'

To many, return of Baker to Mideast policy position brings back his controversial comments about Israel.

baker, james 298 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
baker, james 298 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
James A. Baker III, the first president George Bush's blunt talking, arm-twisting secretary of state, is back. And his return is a cause of concern to many Israeli and American Jews who remember tough talk on Israel during his tenure. But, said former Foreign Ministry director-general Eytan Bentsur, this concern is misplaced. On the contrary, Bentsur said Baker may be the last hope to bring about some kind of long-term Israeli-Arab diplomatic agreement. "I don't know how active he will be," said Bentsur, who was the foreign ministry's deputy director-general for North American affairs during the Baker years, and a close confidant of then foreign minister David Levy. "I think that if he does return, it could be one of the last chances for the Middle East to get on a track leading to a long-term agreement, an agreement that will deal with the real problems." Baker was a major force behind the Madrid talks in 1991, and Bentsur - who worked with him during that period - remains a supporter of the Madrid process. The Madrid formula, as opposed to the Oslo process, posited that the only way to move forward with the Palestinians was to link it to normalization of Israel's relations with the whole Arab world - to create circular links, whereby progress in talks with the Palestinians would lead to greater normalization with the Arab world, which in turn would be an impetus for more progress with the Palestinians. This idea was vastly different from a key notion that seemed to propel Oslo - that Israel's problems with the rest of the Arab world would largely melt away after an agreement was reached with the Palestinians. According to Bentsur, Oslo mistakenly placed the focus on reaching a quick deal with the Palestinians, while completely abandoning the notion of normalizing Israel's ties with the rest of the Arab world. Baker, Bentsur said, represented the more gradual approach, one that sought to define the nature of peace in the region, the need for all sides to compromise, that advocated a multilateral approach, for all regional players to get involved. Baker's return to the headlines these days has little directly to do with Israel. He was recently appointed co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that President George W. Bush established to examine US strategic options in Iraq. Yet the return of Baker to a position of prominence in shaping US Middle East policy - especially since he reportedly is in favor of the US engaging both Syria and Iran - has brought back to many the former secretary of state's controversial comments regarding Israel. For instance, in a Time Magazine profile in 1989 he seemed to liken Israel to turkeys. "The trick is in getting them where you want them, on your terms," he told a reporter who was following him on a turkey hunt in Texas. "Then you control the situation, not them. You have the options. Pull the trigger or don't. It doesn't matter once you've got them where you want them. The important thing is knowing that it's in your hands, that you can do whatever you determine is in your interest to do." The Time Magazine reporter thought Baker was referring to the turkeys. "No," Baker said, "I mean Israel." In 1989, Baker also stunned many by telling an AIPAC conference that "now is the time to lay aside once and for all the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel. Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza, security and otherwise, can be accommodated in a settlement based on [UN Security Council] Resolution 242. Forswear annexation; stop settlement activity; allow schools to reopen; reach out to the Palestinian as neighbors who deserve political rights." Then there was his disparaging remark in Congress in 1990, when he said that when the Israelis were serious about peace, they should call the White House. "The telephone number," he said, "is 1-202-456-1414." And, finally, there was a column published by former New York mayor Ed Koch in the New York Post in 1992 in which he described a Republican campaign strategy session earlier that year where Baker replied to concerns that the Republicans would lose the Jewish vote by saying, "F -- the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway." Baker's spokeswoman at the time, Margaret Tutweiler, put out an immediate denial. Despite this, Bentsur insisted that Baker has an understanding of Israel's security concerns and is by no means an anti-Semite. One scarcely remembered incident involving Baker was when he cried while speaking of Yitzhak Rabin during an interview on PBS's Charlie Rose Show after the Rabin assassination. "People say many things in private," Bentsur responded regarding Koch's article. "Many things are also said here about Americans that just don't make it into the press." While Bentsur said those who came after Baker at the State Department looked for quick-fix solutions, Baker understood the need for a slow and gradual approach. In addition, Bentsur said, Baker has stature among the nations of the world, the respect of the Arabs, and embodies American will. "The US has not had a statesman with his abilities since Henry Kissinger," he said. Bentsur said that while the Oslo process and other diplomatic efforts since then either "ended without anything or in catastrophe," Madrid dealt with real problems, and created a different atmosphere in the region. "There were meetings in numerous capitals, and attempts to deal with the real problems," he said. "This led to the peace with Jordan." Bentsur does not deny that Baker was tough with Israel. Indeed, it was during the first Bush administration that the US conditioned $10 billion in loan guarantees on a cessation of new settlement activities in the West Bank. But at the same time, Bentsur said, Baker was willing to give Israel far-reaching security guarantees. "He is a tough cookie," Bentsur said, "but he has a basic friendliness towards Israel, and wants to ensure our security through a long term peace agreement."