Posted on June 05, 1995 in Washington Watch

Hearing former Secretary of State James A. Baker speak at a meeting this week, I was reminded of the passionate sense of balance tempered by political realism that forged the current Middle East peace process.

Though he is and has been frequently faulted by both sides in the negotiations, Baker remains convinced that both balance and realism had to be reconciled for peace to be possible.

This was part of a broader vision, best expressed by then-President George Bush in his March 6, 1991 address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. This vision recognized that in the wake of the Cold War and the Gulf War, neither the U.S. nor the Middle East region itself could accept the continuation of the divisive Arab-Israeli conflict that complicated security planning, frustrated economic and political development and retarded the emergence of the Middle East as a regional component in the New World Order.

“The time has come,” Bush stated, “to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

The peace he envisioned was a comprehensive one that “must be grounded in United Nation’s Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of territory for peace. This principle must be elaborated to provide for Israel’s security and recognition and at the same time for legitimate Palestinian political rights. Anything else would fail the twin tests of fairness and security.” (My emphasis.)

Inherent, then, in the very logic which launched the peace process is this “twin test” – both aspects of which, “fairness and security,” had to be recognized and acted upon simultaneously. Israeli security and Palestinian rights were, in this view, two sides of the same coin – two dialectically related and interdependent requirements for peace.

If there is any central fault one can find in the current Middle East peace process, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian track, it is the failure to recognize this interdependence of the requirements for peace. Evidence of this failure abounds.

Speaking at the same conference as Baker, PLO advisor Marwan Kanafani addressed the plight of Gaza, noting the devastating impact that Israel’s closure of Gaza has had on the area’s economic development and on the daily lives and hopes of the Palestinians living there. The Palestine National Authority had committed itself to security measures, but how, Kanafani asked, can the Palestinian leadership build support for the peace process and provide security for Israel when daily life in Gaza has gotten so much worse since peace?

The Israelis in attendance responded by lecturing Kanafani on their security needs, making it quite clear that from their perspective the situation will not improve until their needs are met first. The closure of Gaza and the rejection of the dialectical relationship between security and rights it represents has become too acceptable to Israelis. And maybe to some Americans as well.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was recently quoted in the Jerusalem Post as having said,

“There will not be, there cannot be, economic progress in circumstances where the Israelis find themselves in a situation where, to protect their citizens, they have to take actions which are having very negative economic effects on the Palestinians. ...So I think that the cart comes before the horse in this case and the security issues have to be dealt with.”

Making a priority of one of the tests (“security”) at the expense of the other (“fairness”) breaks the dialectic and violates the Bush-Baker terms of reference on which the entire process was based.

Baker, in speaking to that very point this week, made his position clear. “Israeli security and Palestinian economic development are interrelated…just as the Palestinians are showing commitment to provide security, Israel must be committed to Palestinian economic development. That’s why the closure doesn’t help.”

Baker went on to call for a more assertive U.S. role in the peace process, noting that while significant developments had taken place in the past few years, there is a danger that the process is “losing momentum.” There is also a very real danger that upcoming elections, in both the U.S. and Israel, could soon make it more difficult to move the process forward. “We’d better move now,” he stated, “before domestic issues intrude into this process.”

But since the 1996 U.S. presidential elections have already begun, these “domestic issues” have already begun to make their impact on the process. Listening to both President Clinton and Senator Majority Leader Robert Dole addressing the annual convention of AIPAC (the largest and most influential of the pro-Israel lobbies in the U.S.) last month, one was hard-pressed to find the balance so necessary for the process to work.

In justifying his call to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Dole turned upside down the historical logic found in Bush’s 1991 address. “Today,” Dole proclaimed at the AIPAC gathering,

“much has changed. There is no Soviet Union. A multinational coalition led by the United States defeated Iraq. Israel is at peace with Egypt and Jordan. The peace process has made great strides and our commitment to that process is unchallengeable. Delaying the process of moving the embassy now only sends a message of false hope. So what are we waiting for?”

In President Clinton’s speeches before both AIPAC and the World Jewish Congress, and Dole’s AIPAC remarks, the peace process is described as an Israeli-centered process – as if the sole logic behind the process (and, therefore, the measure of its success) is in achieving security and recognition for Israel.

The point is that political discourse about peace has devolved from where it was at the beginning of the process. And, as election-year rhetoric heats up, the focus will become even more centered on Israel’s needs.

But what the architects of the peace process understood, and what the parties themselves apparently recognized in Oslo, is that for the process to work in fact and not just in theory and on paper, Israeli needs and Palestinian needs must be recognized as interdependent. In failing one of the “twin tests” of peace, both tests are failed. This is the new paradigm that ushered the peace process onto the world stage. And it is precisely this that even some of the supporters of the peace process have apparently forgotten.

It was, therefore, both refreshing and of timely importance to hear Baker remind us all of the enduring validity of his vision and logic for peace.

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