9. George Bush
George Bush took office in January 1989, during a period that in many ways was the most hopeful, in other ways the most difficult, in the more than forty-year history of U.S. involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Never had the Palestinians, strengthened and given political confidence by the intifada, been readier to coexist in peace with Israel in a two-state division of Palestine. But never had Israel under the hard-line government of the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir—its control over the West Bank and Gaza consolidated after almost a dozen years of unrestrained settlement construction and its annexationist policies encouraged by eight years of Reagan administration acquiescence—been less ready for compromise.
Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, wanted to move forward on the peace process but were deterred from taking forceful action during their first year and a half in office by several factors. Neither had a strategic vision of a Middle East at peace; they had no particular interest in what a peace settlement would look like but wanted a solution for the political achievement of finding a solution. The overriding interest in the process of achieving a peace settlement, rather than in peace itself, tended to dampen the administration’s commitment when obstacles arose. The political climate in the United States also restrained vigorous action. Despite greatly increased sympathy for the Palestinians and criticism of Israel since the outbreak of the intifada, the general sentiment in the country and in Congress remained opposed to exerting the kind of pressure on Israel that was necessary to move its Likud government.
A further impediment to negotiations was the fact that Bush and Baker surrounded themselves with a group of Middle East advisers strongly of the view that the United States could and should do little to move the peace process along. Neither Bush nor Baker was inclined toward activism on
― 243 ―
any issue, and, without real convictions on the Middle East’s problems, both were inclined at the beginning to follow their advisers’ cautious approach. As a result, so little was accomplished in the administration’s first eighteen months that the peace process went completely off the track in the summer of 1990, and the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990–1991 diverted all attention from attempts to start peace negotiations on the Palestinian-Israeli issue until mid-1991.
By the time Bush and Baker turned their attention again to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, conditions in the Middle East, in the international arena, and on the domestic political scene made the situation unusually amenable to U.S. intervention. The Madrid peace conference convened in October 1991 was a landmark in Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli history, marking the first time a comprehensive peace conference was attended by all parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the first time Palestinians participated in peace negotiations at any level.
The mere fact of the Palestinians’ attendance at the Madrid conference did much to change the way public opinion in the United States viewed them; it altered the Middle East frame of reference in fundamental ways. Palestinians were now seen to a far greater degree as reasonable people with human concerns and legitimate aspirations. Bush and Baker were able to accomplish this alteration in the frame of reference because, in their unsentimental approach to Palestinian-Israeli issues, they recognized what few other politicians did, that the political climate would support an effort to lean not just on the Palestinians but also on Israel for the concessions necessary to begin peace negotiations. The problem with their approach, however, was that with no substantive goal they lost interest after the procedural hurdles of convening peace talks had been cleared and allowed the negotiations to bog down.
Bush and Baker together were a foreign-policy team of rare pragmatism when it came to Middle East issues and policy toward Israel. Both completely unemotional policymakers, they were less bound to the U.S. relationship with Israel and less fettered by the restraints of this relationship than any president and secretary of state except Carter and Vance.
Bush was probably better versed in foreign diplomacy and policymaking when he took office than any president before or since, having served as ambassador to the UN, ambassador to China, and director of the CIA. He did not have an intricate knowledge of the history or politics of individual nations, except possibly China, and he did not know the Middle East any
― 244 ―
better than any other new president, but he was attuned to the conduct of foreign policy to a far greater extent than most presidents. He was a warm and gregarious person, according to aides, and he carried this personal warmth into his diplomacy. He had a unique sense of the importance of, and usually had great skill in developing, a personal interchange with foreign leaders in order to accomplish mutual goals. Much of his difficulty with Israel, in fact, came about because he took an instant personal dislike to Prime Minister Shamir and was unable to forge a cooperative relationship with the Israeli leader, who misled Bush about Israel’s plans for settlement construction in the occupied territories at their first meeting.
But if Bush was a diplomat, he was not a statesman. Uncomfortable with geopolitical rhetoric and strategizing, and impatient, as he himself advertised, with what he called “the vision thing,” Bush never articulated a broad vision of U.S. foreign-policy goals beyond a sense of the importance of the United States as a world leader. Indeed, he is said to have favored close inter personal relations with other leaders precisely because he was so uncomfortable with ideas and so skeptical of the power of ideas to change people’s minds. Perhaps overly cynical, Time magazine White House correspondents Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame concluded in their 1992 book on Bush, Marching in Place, that he was a wholly practical man who decided that what he most wanted to do in his first term was win a second term.
Bush’s diplomatic jobs, none lasting long in the first place, had never involved making or enunciating policy, and even as a presidential candidate in 1980 he did not spell out his views on foreign policy. Throughout the Reagan administration, in stark contrast to Reagan himself and most of his team, Bush had remained for the most part a closed book. It was clear that with regard to the Middle East he was far less emotionally attached to Israel than most of the rest of the administration, but for the most part his viewpoint was kept well hidden. “For a man of wide experience, he had left few traces” before becoming the president, notes one scholar.
Secretary of State Baker, a longtime close friend and political ally of Bush, was a man remarkably like him in both personality and political style. Both status-quo politicians, reluctant to rock the boat or take bold steps; both intrigued more by the workings and the process of foreign policy than by its substance; both impatient with the world of ideas and broad visions, the two men were so much alike and their instincts so much in tune that it is virtually impossible to determine where, on a given issue, the influence of one left off and that of the other began. They coordinated so closely, meeting privately twice a week and talking on the telephone up to a dozen times a day, that their policymaking was all but seamless. No other members
― 245 ―
of Bush’s top-level foreign-policy team felt particularly deeply about the substance of Arab-Israeli issues or had significant input in Middle East policymaking.
Baker pursued policies not because they advanced an ideological or an emotional agenda but essentially because they would work, because they would advance whatever political agenda he and Bush had set. Baker was universally described, by allies and critics alike, as having uncanny political acumen and a keen sense of how to work Congress and the press and to maneuver on the Washington political scene. He also had a rare instinct for knowing what he could accomplish politically; he generally took on only those issues where success was virtually assured, and he is said to have formed a viewpoint on an issue only after having judged its likely political implications.
Like Bush not a man of vision, Baker was far less interested in policy goals themselves than in the process involved in achieving them. Scholar and former government official William Quandt has observed that the United States acted as a convener in the peace process but not as a mediator, never even hinting during the 1991 Madrid peace conference and its follow-up negotiations at any substantive ideas to put before the parties. New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman, a careful observer of Baker throughout the administration’s four years, made a similar observation, noting that the “Baker-Bush peace process was at its root an intense negotiation focused primarily on getting the parties to the table. It never really intended to get the parties to agreements, with compromise proposals of its own.”
This interest in process over substance, along with Baker’s innate tendency toward caution, meant that he could easily be deterred from pursuing a policy objective in the first place if political difficulties loomed, and he could be diverted from a goal if another, more politically feasible or more tactically challenging goal arose to take his attention. Both of these situations arose at various points during Baker’s tenure as secretary of state: in the administration’s early years, his highly developed political sense and the possibility of failure kept him from vigorously pursuing the peace process or challenging the Middle East status quo, and after the Madrid peace conference had moved on to bilateral negotiations, Baker, no longer interested in the talks as they turned to substantive matters and diverted by the need to campaign for Bush’s reelection, ignored the peace process and allowed it to languish.
As a self-described man of action rather than of reflection, and no historian by his own testimony, Baker had little sense of the historical forces
― 246 ―
behind any of the issues with which he dealt and, specifically with regard to the Middle East, little appreciation for the history that animated either Israelis or Palestinians. Clearly not influenced by the Reagan administration’s previous intimacy with Israel and just as obviously not a product of the frame of reference that had always dictated close emotional ties with Israel, Baker was as uninterested in Israel’s Holocaust-induced fears and its security concerns as he was in the Palestinians’ grievances over the 1948 dispossession. He came to office with a skeptical attitude toward the Likud government’s hard-line policy on the occupied territories, and, like Bush, he quickly developed an intense dislike for Shamir’s prickly personality.
Lack of empathy for the Israelis did not, however, make Baker pro-Palestinian or give him an understanding of Palestinian concerns. At the start of his term in office, he does not seem to have had a clear understanding of the Palestinian position. He remarks in his memoirs that when the new administration took office in January 1989 there was “no real evidence to believe the climate was ripe for generating any momentum” because “neither side” was ready to make the concessions necessary to start a peace process. Neither the PLO nor the front-line Arab states, he remarked, “appeared interested in searching for common ground” with Israel, and the PLO “remained committed to the destruction of Israel.” Referring to a period only weeks after the PLO had formally made major concessions in its diplomatic stance, indicating that it recognized and was ready to coexist with Israel and was eager to begin peace negotiations, Baker’s belief that no Arab was ready for peace with Israel indicates that, however free he may have been of the constraints of the frame of reference in some respects, he was very much bound by the rote assumption that Palestinians were incapable of compromise.
What was unique about Bush and Baker in the way they made Middle East policy was their utter lack of sentimentality; they had “no illusions about the Arabs, no illusions about the Israelis.” They pursued a policy solely because they judged it to be in their own political interest or that of the United States, not because they had an opinion on the morality or the justice of either the Israelis’ or the Arabs’ positions. If an issue appeared to be impeding progress, Baker worked to overcome the obstacle purely for the sake of advancing the peace process, not from a judgment that the rights of one side or the other were being infringed. When Baker calculated that Israel’s settlement construction had begun to foreclose too many negotiating options for the Palestinians, he exerted heavy pressure on Israel, not because he sympathized with the Palestinians but simply because he perceived that this was the only way to get negotiations started. By the same
― 247 ―
token, when he concluded that the only way to secure Israel’s attendance at the Madrid peace conference in 1991 was to obtain Palestinian concessions on such procedural issues as whether Palestinians from inside Jerusalem or with known ties to the PLO could attend, he forced those concessions not because he cared about the symbolism of who attended and who was barred but because his sole interest was in starting the conference.
Despite his lack of sentimentality, Baker did show occasional flashes of compassion, and the Palestinians with whom he dealt during the months of preparation before the Madrid conference were able to bring him to some understanding of the human dimension of their situation in the occupied territories. He gained a better insight into the vantage point from which the Palestinians were negotiating. This understanding and his recognition that continuation of the status quo was impeding progress in the peace process would not have been possible except for the fact that he was the first high-level U.S. official in a half century of Middle East policymaking ever to meet formally with Palestinian representatives and therefore to encounter Palestinian concerns and grievances firsthand. His experience stands as a prime example of how dealing directly and forthrightly with both sides to a conflict can affect policy by influencing the perspective from which that policy is made.
Bush administration Middle East policy in the first year was influenced heavily by a lengthy report prepared in advance of the 1988 presidential election under the auspices of the pro-Israeli think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The report had been prepared in the hope that, whichever candidate won election, the new administration would use it as an initial guidepost for Arab-Israeli policy, much as the Carter administration had used the Brookings Institution report in 1976. Campaign advisers and major figures from both political parties were members of the study group that drafted the report, as were several former government officials, journalists, and Middle East experts. Most of these individuals could be described as having a pro-Israeli bent.
As had occurred in the Carter administration when several of the Brookings report’s drafters were appointed to important positions in the administration, the Washington Institute report proved to be a stepping stone for several of its authors to key positions in the Bush administration. Lawrence Eagleburger, who had cochaired the study group with Walter Mondale and had been a close associate of Henry Kissinger in the White House and the State Department during the Nixon and Ford administrations, became
― 248 ―
deputy secretary of state; Dennis Ross, a Middle East and Soviet expert who had been Bush’s foreign-policy adviser during the campaign and was the principal drafter of the report, was appointed director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, where he became Baker’s principal policy adviser; and Richard Haass, another Middle East expert and former Robert Dole campaign adviser, was named director of Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff.
The Washington Institute report was essentially a blueprint for inaction. Concluding that the intifada had made peacemaking more difficult than it had been before and that the conflict between the Arab states and Israel had become more dangerous and volatile, the report asserted that the impediments to the peace process were too great to be overcome “by a direct diplomatic assault” and recommended that the administration shun efforts to achieve a rapid “breakthrough.” The administration should instead engage in a more drawn-out “ripening process,” attempting through the promotion of “confidence-building measures” to create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations and gradually to alter the two sides’ perceptions of each other. Although it observed that continuation of the status quo was dangerous for everyone, including Israel, the report amounted effectively to an endorsement of the status quo since it specifically eschewed any active U.S. intervention against the Likud government’s hard-line position.
Largely because it was written from an Israeli perspective by a group with little or no understanding of the Palestinian point of view, the report misunderstood the purpose of the intifada, concluding unreasonably that its principal effect had been to increase hatred and suspicion and to radicalize Palestinians in the occupied territories. The report’s argument for the radicalizing effect of the intifada was based on the conclusion that Palestinian youth and refugee-camp inhabitants were dictating the pace and intensity of events and that “the pragmatic element—the traditional, middle class elites in the West Bank who accommodated themselves to the Israeli occupation—[had] been undermined and intimidated.” The Israel-centered thinking behind this conclusion is clear: Palestinians who did not “accommodate themselves to the Israeli occupation” were radicals, and any attempt at rebellion against the occupation was automatically to be condemned.
The report’s focus on the Israeli perspective was also evident in the fact that it placed the entire burden of peacemaking on the Palestinians. Asserting, again unreasonably, that the intifada had undermined the influence of Israeli advocates of conciliation, the report’s authors called on the Palestinians but not the Israelis to make conciliatory moves. Palestinians must, the report said, “go beyond imposing costs on Israel”; unless a Palestinian initiative
― 249 ―
was “an unambiguous effort to accommodate and reassure Israel,” it would surely fail. There was no call for an Israeli initiative or for an Israeli attempt to “accommodate and reassure” the Palestinians.
The report bore quite heavily the imprint of the kind of thinking and the misconceptions about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that had taken hold during the Reagan administration among large segments of the community of political elites in Washington and throughout the United States. Most of these misconceptions were not new, but the rising prominence of such study institutes and think tanks as the Washington Institute, which had easy access to policymakers, gave this body of perceptions a new currency and a greater level of coherence. This was the set of assumptions that informed the thinking of the report’s authors, that found its way into the basic premises of the report, and that formed the initial basis of Bush administration policy. It was also the basic set of assumptions, only slightly altered over the years, that this group of policy advisers eventually took to the Clinton administration.
These stock assumptions had several more or less interrelated elements: that the PLO was incapable of compromise and that, if the Palestinian issue were to be resolved, the PLO had to be bypassed; that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were inherently more moderate than the PLO and could constitute the hoped-for “alternative Palestinian leadership”; that the burden of compromise and movement in the peace process lay with the Arabs; that most Arabs, however, believed that they did not need to make a move, that they could wait the Israelis out in the hope that the United States would exert pressure on Israel; that the Palestinians were not a community or a distinct people and had only lately inserted themselves into what was essentially an interstate conflict between Israel and the Arab states; that Israelis had vital security needs that must be accommodated as part of any solution but that Palestinians, as simply the “intercommunal” element of a more significant interstate conflict, had no similar concerns.
One of the most cogent spokesmen for this mind-set was Martin Indyk, a highly influential Australian who came to prominence in Washington as a strategic analyst for AIPAC during the Reagan years, was a cofounder of the Washington Institute in the late 1980s and became its executive director, served as convener of the study group that produced the Institute’s 1988 report, and later served in the Clinton administration in high-level White House and State Department positions. Indyk did not play a direct role in Bush administration policymaking, but he had a major role in formulating the Washington Institute report, and he was a close associate of such individuals as Ross and Haass and shared their mind-set. At a November
― 250 ―
1988 symposium at the Institute he gave a presentation on the report that expands on the background thinking and is instructive for what it reveals of this group’s approach to policy on the Palestinian-Israeli situation.
Essentially ignoring the fact that just two weeks before his presentation the PNC had issued a political platform implicitly accepting coexistence with Israel, Indyk minimized the importance of the Palestinian element in the Arab-Israeli conflict and overstated the nature of the “complication” introduced by the intifada. He said he believed the Bush administration, just elected, would face a much more complex situation than previous administrations because the Arab-Israeli conflict was suddenly no longer only an interstate conflict but “now possessesan additional intercommunal component.” Indyk’s reference to a new “additional” element betrayed a failure to understand that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict began, and the Palestinian element in the situation emerged, not when the intifada erupted in 1987 but a century earlier. Indyk’s chagrin at discovering that the Palestinian issue was part of the broader conflict was evident throughout his remarks, as was his apparent reluctance to acknowledge that because of the intifada and the PNC’s recent concessions, the Palestinian issue was no longer an avoidable problem. He nonetheless still sought ways around the problem, for instance by minimizing the conciliatory aspects of the PNC’s political platform and portraying the Palestinians as still intransigent—which allowed him to conclude that he found it “difficult to recall a time when the positions of the parties to the conflict were so far apart and basically unbridgeable.”
Israel’s Meron Benvenisti, in describing the Israeli reaction to the inti fada, has made a point about the nature of the Israeli mind-set on the Palestinians that applies equally to Indyk and other like thinkers in the United States. The Israelis, Benvenisti said, refused to see the Palestinians as a community and so could not believe that they would respond as a community to the occupation and its harsh practices. Benvenisti saw the roots of this Israeli misjudgment as lying in what he called the ethnocentric Jewish world-view, the “inability to recognize the existence of another legitimate collective between the Jordan and the sea.” As a result of this mind-set, the Israelis internalized only the violent aspect of the intifada and were blind to its community, and one might say its national, aspects—among them the Palestinians’ mobilization of the entire community and particularly the masses and their attempts to create an independent economic and social infrastructure. The old frame of reference that Indyk represented could fairly be characterized as quite similar to this Israeli mind-set in its inability
― 251 ―
to see the Palestinians as a people and a community in their own right and as other than perpetrators of violence and opponents of Israel.
The Washington Institute report reinforced Bush’s and Baker’s own instincts for caution and lack of innovation and gave Baker the excuse he wanted for staying at arm’s length from a problem he knew had no guarantees of success. These factors and his own lack of knowledge about the situation gave those individuals involved in the report who moved into key administration positions considerable influence in this early period, particularly Ross, who became Baker’s closest adviser on both Middle East and Soviet affairs. Ross was known to share the pro-Israeli community’s suspicions of the State Department’s so-called Arabists and of other elements of the government bureaucracy. Baker himself liked to work with a small circle of trusted aides, and by concentrating policy formulation on Middle East issues in the hands of Ross as director of the Policy Planning Staff and two other State Department experts, Baker and Ross almost totally shut out the line officers in the Near East Bureau. The other two members of the Ross trio at the State Department were Daniel Kurtzer, a Foreign Service officer fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic who had served in Egypt and Israel, and Aaron David Miller, a Policy Planning Staff analyst who had written two books on the Palestinians and the Palestine question in the 1980s.
All three men worked closely with Baker. They and National Security Council staffer Haass traveled with him on his shuttle missions to the Middle East, particularly the eight trips he made in 1991 in organizing the Madrid peace conference. Most often, Ross was the only adviser Baker took with him when meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. All these advisers, all Jewish and all widely described in the United States and in Israel as having “impeccably pro-Israeli credentials” but with an Israeli Labor Party approach to the issues, came to be known as the bureaucracy’s “Israelists,” succeeding the generations of Arabists who had once populated the State Department. Hanan Ashrawi, one of the Palestinians who met regularly with this team throughout 1991 and during bilateral peace talks in Washington in 1992 and 1993, has observed that the Palestinians found it ironic that this U.S. team reflected the Israeli domestic political scene, not the U.S. political scene. In Washington in those days, she noted, “there was no question of pro-Israeli versus pro-Arab (or pro-Palestinian) trends and currents, but one had to figure out if the players were sympathetic to Peace Now, Labor, or Likud. … It was evident … that positions were defined on the basis of what was good for Israel from the different perspectives of the Israeli political spectrum.”
― 252 ―
Ross had long been espousing the Israel-centered ideas embodied in the Washington Institute report. A scholar who had worked in the Defense Department at various times during both the Carter and the Reagan administrations, briefly in the State Department under Reagan, and in various think tanks before becoming a campaign adviser to Bush in 1988, he had long been a believer in Israel’s strategic value to the United States and had a track record as an advocate of the kind of nonactivist approach to the peace process that the Washington Institute had proposed for the United States and that the Bush administration followed in its first year and a half in office. In a policy paper written for the Washington Institute in 1985, aptly titled Acting with Caution: Middle East Policy Planning for the Second Reagan Administration, Ross had concluded that because warfare in the Middle East was then unlikely and the Arabs were inflexible and unready to take the steps necessary for progress toward a peace settlement, there was no urgent reason for U.S. action and the United States should therefore pursue “a strategy of motion while patiently awaiting real movement from the local parties.”
As demonstrated in this paper, Ross was strikingly focused on Israel and what was good for Israel and had little understanding of the Arab or particularly the Palestinian perspective. For instance, assuming that “the ball is in the Arabs’ court” with regard to movement toward peace, Ross advocated appointing a “non-Arabist” special Middle East envoy who would deliver several messages to the Arabs: that the United States was prepared to act, but its actions could not substitute for Arab action toward peace; that the Arabs could not count on the United States to deliver Israeli concessions; and that Israeli concessions would come only when the Arabs agreed to negotiate directly with Israel and gave concrete (this word was emphasized but not elaborated on) demonstrations of their flexibility. Yet Ross would issue no similar messages to Israel: the Israelis would not be told that U.S. action was no substitute for Israeli movement toward peace; no flexibility was demanded of Israel; no concrete actions or demonstrations of Israeli conciliation were required in order to move toward peace.
Ross’s colleagues at the State Department, Miller and Kurtzer, although linked by religious and family ties to Israel, appear to have been somewhat more cognizant of the need to involve the Palestinians in the peace process than Ross was in the administration’s early months, and they are said to have had considerable understanding of Arab sensitivities. Miller has been described as a brainy historian who tends to look at the broader implications of policy and who has a tendency to lean toward the Arab position. His writings—unlikethose of Ross, Haass, or Indyk—show him to be a serious
― 253 ―
and generally unbiased analyst, better able than the others to distance himself from the Israeli perspective and better able to view the Arab side clearly and dispassionately. Kurtzer wrote a doctoral dissertation in 1976 on the development of the Palestinian resistance movement and Israel’s reaction to guerrilla activity that indicates an understanding of the national basis of the Palestinian struggle.
Haass was another principal drafter of the Washington Institute report who, like Ross, took an Israel-focused approach to the problems of the Middle East. A Harvard lecturer who had briefly served in the Defense and State Departments, Haass had participated with Ross and several others in 1981 in drafting a policy paper to set out the formal terms of strategic cooperation with Israel. His own views were clearly laid out in a 1986 article in Commentary magazine and, after he had been appointed to the National Security Council staff, in a book, Conflicts Unending, published in 1990. It does not appear that Haass’s fundamental viewpoint changed significantly over the four years between publication of these two documents, and much in these documents points to his heavy hand in drafting the Washington Institute report.
The principal theme of his own writings, like that of the Washington Institute report, was that the Middle East situation was not “ripe” for movement toward peace and therefore also not for U.S. intervention. Throughout his own pieces, Haass placed the entire burden for making concessions on the Arab side; failed, even in 1990, after the PLO had conceded Israel’s right to exist, to give credence to any of the concessions the Arabs had already made; did not appear to expect that any similar concessions should be demanded from Israel; and specifically eschewed any U.S. effort to press Israel for movement. Haass patronized the Arabs and the Palestinians by repeating the old shibboleth, popular for years among supporters of Israel, that “visible efforts by the United States for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East help perpetuate the illusion in the Arab world that the secret to peace in the region lies not in their own willingness to compromise but in an American willingness to pressure Israel.” This point failed to give either the Palestinians or other Arabs credit for past compromises or for any seriousness of purpose in pursuing a peace settlement.
Haass gave no evidence of recognizing the centrality of the Palestinian issue to resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict or of understanding that the roots of the conflict lay in the Palestinians’ dispersal in 1948 rather than in Israel’s capture of territory in 1967. He also indicated, even as late as his 1990 book, no appreciation of the impediment to progress, from the Palestinian standpoint, posed by such Israeli actions as settlement construction
― 254 ―
and land confiscation. For instance, although he spoke of the need to accommodate Israeli security concerns in a final resolution, he did not, in a lengthy discussion of the positions of the various parties and of several possible approaches to a final resolution, refer to the impact on the Palestinians of the settlements or any other aspect of living under Israeli occupation. Perhaps the most telling clue to Haass’s thinking lay in the fact that he listed as one of four recommended books on the Arab-Israeli conflict Joan Peters’s 1984 From Time Immemorial—a book of dubious scholarship, discredited in Israeli scholarly circles, that seriously distorted the Palestinians’ claim to patrimony in Palestine.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the frame of reference of Ross, Haass, and others who formulated Palestinian-Israeli policy in this period was the fact that their Israeli perspective obscured for them the impact that U.S. aid had had, particularly during the Reagan years, on stiffening Israel’s resistance to demands for concessions. In concluding that the situation was not “ripe” for a serious U.S. initiative, all these individuals argued that neither Arabs nor Israelis were ready to make the compromises necessary for a successful negotiating process; in the case of the Israelis, they contended that the Israeli body politic was polarized and unable to reach a consensus on how to alter the status quo. This observation begged the question, however, of what had encouraged the Likud government in the belief that it need not make hard decisions and whether a massive amount of no-strings-attached U.S. aid was a factor in Israeli complacency. None of the key individuals who wrote so extensively on the need for caution and the inadvisability of exerting pressure on Israel had examined, or apparently given thought to, what if any role U.S. policies played in bringing or failing to bring Israel to the critical point of ripeness.
The realities of dealing at first hand with Arabs and Israelis on the peace process and of working for a consummate pragmatist like Baker did bring about some change in the outlook of these individuals. Ross, for instance, gained a better sense of the Palestinian viewpoint and of what was and was not possible from the Arab standpoint after working on the Palestinian-Israeli problem for a while. He began to understand Palestinian distinctness, telling a symposium in September 1989 that the Palestinians were “not derivative” and “not a function of an Egyptian delegation or a Jordanian delegation.” In addition, although he had earlier been a strong advocate of the so-called Jordanian option—that is, negotiating the fate of the West Bank with Jordan rather than with the Palestinians—he observed at the 1989 symposium that the Jordanian option might never have been
― 255 ―
more than a fiction in the first place and had finally been put to rest by the intifada.
The most significant factor in bringing about a change in the approach pursued by these advisers, however, seems to have been the change in Bush and Baker themselves. They had never shared the mind-set that the advisers brought to office, and, from the beginning, although not enthusiastic about the U.S.-PLO dialogue and deeply cautious about how it should be pursued because of the political opposition to it in the United States, they made it clear that they hoped the dialogue would succeed. As a result, even powerful advisers like Ross and Haass, who did not believe in the dialogue, ultimately came to see some utility in it and were forced to defend it. Baker, ever the cautious politician, was happy enough at the start to follow the Ross/Haass/Washington Institute approach, but when later, in 1991, he moved into a more activist mode and it became clear that Bush and he were prepared to exert significant pressure on Israel’s Likud government for movement in the peace process, the advisers loyally supported the policy.
The particularly noteworthy aspect of the body of assumptions these advisers brought to government is that these individuals not only played a majorrole in formulating Bus had ministration policy but to an even greater extent shaped policy in the Clinton administration, where most of them stayed on as major players in the Middle East peace process. In an administration like Clinton’s, whose leadership had few concrete foreign-policy ideas of its own but did, unlike the Bush administration, feel a great sentimental attachment to Israel, the impact of these Israel-focused advisers was considerable.
The real change in Bush and Baker themselves, from timidity to boldness and, in the context of past decades of policymaking, near recklessness in the way they exerted pressure on Israel and advocated for Palestinian participation in peace talks, was long in coming. Baker began in early 1989 by leaning on the parties verbally and attempting halfheartedly to keep the U.S.-PLO dialogue alive and to persuade the parties to move forward with a minimum of U.S. involvement. But this was policy avoidance rather than policymaking, and in the end nothing was accomplished in the year and a half before the peace process collapsed and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein diverted all attention by invading Kuwait, leading to the Gulf crisis of 1990–1991.
Quandt has written that the paradox about Bush was that his initial agenda was “probably more consonant with Israeli views than that of any
― 256 ―
previous president,” yet this same administration soon became known as the most hostile ever to Israel. Indeed, it was a paradox that the president and secretary of state who were least sentimentally attached to Israel and least shaped by the old frame of reference should in the first place have chosen advisers whose agenda was so consonant with Israel’s views. But it was a greater irony that a group of advisers, all Jewish and all very much in tune with a moderate Israeli viewpoint, would so quickly be castigated by Israel’s right wing and the Likud’s U.S. supporters as self-hating Jews, labeled in vulgar terms as “Baker’s Jew boys.”
The paradoxes had much to do with pre—Bush administration policies, with the Reagan era’s extremely pro-Israeli approach and the expectations this approach raised. Israel and its supporters, having received affection and acquiescence from the Reagan foreign-policy team, expected the same from the Bush-Baker team. But now the tone was distinctly different. In May 1989, for instance, when Baker addressed the annual AIPAC conference and called on Israel to “lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel,” cease construction of settlements in the occupied territories, forswear annexation of territory, and reach out to the Palestinians “as neighbors who deserve political rights,” the reaction from Israel and its friends was outrage. The speech was written by Ross, Kurtzer, and Miller, and the policy was not different from that laid out in the Reagan Plan of 1982. But because the Reagan administration had never mentioned its opposition to the Likud’s visions of a “Greater Israel” after 1982, Israel apparently did not expect to hear such admonitions. Nor was it enough for Israel that Baker was equally demanding of the Palestinians, stating U.S. opposition to Palestinian statehood and urging them to end the intifada, amend the PLO Charter, and reach out to the Israelis. The Israelis’ problem was apparently as much the tone of Baker’s remarks as their content. The Jerusalem Post commented that in “the vital realm of atmospherics” Baker was nothing like his predecessor George Shultz. The reaction is an interesting commentary on the role of perceptions in policymaking and on the difficulties posed by formulating policy from a constricted framework.
In fact, it is a measure of how laden with emotion Middle East policymaking had always been that Bush’s and Baker’s lack of sentimentality was widely taken as hostility to Israel. The Reagan administration had been so accommodating to Israel that, in a real sense, no one who followed could have done other than coddle Israel without arousing suspicion and heavy criticism. Bus hand Baker, it was clear from the beginning, were determined to deal with Israel as “just another pragmatic foreign policy problem,” but Israel did not know how to cope with this attitude. Israeli officials, U.S.
― 257 ―
Jewish officials, and the media devoted great amounts of time and editorial space to taking the temperature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Always comparing Baker to Shultz, Israelis talked about their discomfiture with the cool, businesslike attitude now displayed toward them during official meetings. The media counted the number of meetings between Baker and U.S. Jewish leaders, which never matched the regularity of Shultz’s meetings, and criticized Bush and Baker for not establishing “an emotional bond of trust” with Israel. New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman actually referred to the fact that Baker never communicated his plans to the U.S. Jewish community as one of his “great failings.” That Bush’s and Baker’s treatment of Israel as “just another pragmatic foreign policy problem” became a subject of such consternation and a major topic of media discussion is an indication of how thoroughly U.S. interests were identified with Israel’s in the public mind. Israel had come to expect love, in a literal sense, and indulgence as its due, but Bush and Baker merely wanted a practical way to mediate a peace.
The Palestinians did not receive any indulgence either. One of the principal objectives of the authors of the Washington Institute report had been to sideline the PLO and attempt instead to work through a local Palestinian leadership from the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the PLO’s major concessions in late 1988, Bush administration policy remained focused at the beginning on an effort to bypass the organization. The U.S.-PLO dialogue, according to procedures established at the end of the Reagan administration, took place in Tunis, where PLO headquarters was located, between several members of the PLO Executive Committee and U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Robert Pelletreau. The talks, which proceeded haltingly for eighteen months, were an essentially meaningless diplomatic exercise. The Palestinians were disappointed that the United States would not allow contacts at a higher level and quickly came to feel that the United States was promoting the Israeli position. The meetings were infrequent, averaging only about one every two months in the first year of the dialogue, and amounted to little more than a pro forma exchange of positions by individuals on both sides who were too far removed from the centers of power and decision making to have a real input.
More meaningful negotiations, specifically designed to circumvent the PLO, were going on at a higher level throughout this period among the United States, Israel, and Egypt over a proposal for West Bank/Gaza elections that the United States had urged Israeli Prime Minister Shamir to put forth. Rather than take the domestic political risks of dealing directly with the PLO in these negotiations, the United States used Egypt as an intermediary.
― 258 ―
Operating initially on the belief that a supposedly more moderate Palestinian leadership from the occupied territories could be split off from the PLO, as well as on the equally erroneous belief that Israel’s Likudled government was interested in negotiating a compromise peace agreement, the new Bush administration had urged the Israelis to come up with a proposal that would form the basis for a new round of diplomacy. Seeing this request as an opportunity—indeed, as an invitation from the United States—to set the agenda for the next round, the Israeli cabinet put forth a plan for holding local elections in the West Bank and Gaza to choose a delegation of non-PLO Palestinians with whom Israel could then negotiate an interim agreement on self-government, in accordance with the Camp David formula. The Israeli proposal addressed no substantive issues and dealt only procedurally with elections of local Palestinians who might or might not then be able to negotiate substantive matters.
The Bush-Baker team of advisers generally operated at the beginning in the belief that the Palestinian issue could somehow be taken care of by dealing with the West Bank and Gaza in this way, promoting the establishment of a local leadership and ignoring that part of the Palestinian community, making up at least half the total world wide Palestinian population, that lived outside the occupied territories. In his 1985 paper, Ross had advocated that Israel unilaterally impose autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza as a means of promoting an alternative local leadership. According to one former government official, Baker, Ross, and Ross’s subordinates did finally, because “it was explained ad nauseam” to them, come to see the importance to all Palestinians of being represented by the PLO because it spoke both for Palestinians in exile and for those inside the occupied territories. But during the 1989–1990 effort to organize a Palestinian negotiating delegation, they still went to considerable lengths to accommodate Israel’s refusal to deal with the PLO. Indeed, Haass, virtually alone among the policymakers working on the issue, persisted even beyond 1990 in failing to recognize the PLO’s importance to the Palestinians, insisting that “the whole idea is to play on the split, not to help preserve [Palestinian] unity.”
Shamir brought the Israeli plan for local elections with him in April 1989 on his first visit to Washington after Bush’s election, and it quickly became labeled “the only game in town,” meaning it was regarded by the United States as the only starting point for the peace process. The Palestinians had missed an opportunity to take the initiative themselves by failing to put forth substantive proposals of their own. The PLO team engaged in dialogue with the U.S. ambassador in Tunis did not press the United States to discuss substantive issues, and although Arafat apparently composed
― 259 ―
a letter to Bush in February explaining the PNC resolutions passed three months earlier and emphasizing the Palestinian desire for peace, he delayed sending it in order to consult other Arab leaders on its content; he did not dispatch it until summer, well after Shamir had proposed his elections plan. Although the PLO might have regained some of the initiative by putting forth counterproposals to the Shamir plan, it chose instead to work quietly and indirectly through Egypt’s auspices.
Baker and his advisers spent the following year working on Shamir’s plan, proposing variations and seeking counterproposals from Egypt. The Egyptians, serving as intermediaries with the PLO and hoping to secure Israel’s agreement to broaden its definition of “acceptable” Palestinians to stand for election, offered a proposal in response to Israel’s plan, and in late 1989 Baker, trying to bridge the gap, put forth a U.S. proposal. But because Israel’s Likud-led government was uninterested in real movement toward peace, because the PLO failed to put itself forward actively, and because the United States was determined not to become engaged in questions of substance, the Israeli-Egyptian-U.S. diplomatic exchanges had no real goal and eventually became entangled in absurd procedural controversies over which Palestinians with which residency status and which address would be allowed to run for election. In the spring of 1990, Shamir, opposed to moving beyond this procedural wrangling and under pressure from right-wingers in his cabinet, finally scuttled his own plan.
The United States had misjudged Shamir’s flexibility and essentially wasted a year in the belief that he would ultimately compromise and could be cajoled into real movement toward peace. Apparently believing that Shamir was flexible underneath a tough exterior and interpreting the Israeli’s hard-line policy on the occupied territories as a tactical stance that could be changed if he were handled adroitly and cautiously, Ross thought the Likud-led government would eventually take serious steps. Bush and Baker, themselves nonideological pragmatists who could see the possibility for resolution in every problem, had little understanding of anyone like Shamir who was prepared to stand absolutely firm on the basis of ideology. It was a year before U.S. officials began to realize that Shamir had no intention of ever relinquishing control over the West Bank and Gaza.
The belief that the Likud was somehow flexible beneath the surface had been a major misconception in the United States for some time. Indeed, the belief that Israel would eventually “come around” and the inability to recognize that the Likud would not had long been fundamental elements of the basic frame of reference from which U.S. policy was made and had led the United States astray during both the Carter and the Reagan administrations.
― 260 ―
Baker’s public threats to withdraw from the peace process, made in anger after Israel had scuttled the elections plan in mid-1990, and his dramatic statement before Congress giving the White House phone number and telling Israel to call when it was serious about peace were an indication that, even after more than a year of dealing with Israel, Baker did not fully recognize that U.S. disengagement was exactly what Shamir wanted.
Many who knew Israel better felt at the time that while Shamir and his right-wing government could not be moved, Israeli society was ready for change and would have responded to a clear U.S. stance opposing Israel’s West Bank policies by changing the political equation. Contrary to the conventional U.S. notion that aid should never be used to exert pressure on Israel, these observers believed that pressure on Shamir would have had a salutary effect and that U.S. encouragement of Shamir had discouraged more moderate Israelis from challenging him. Former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote in early 1990 that opinion polls indicated that the Israeli public was ready for territorial compromise and for dialogue with anyone who truly represented the Palestinians, even the PLO. The United States was hurting its own and Israel’s interests, he thought, by so narrowly focusing on Shamir’s nonsubstantive elections plan. Noting pointedly that “our region has never been as ‘ripe’ as it is today for large visions and hard facts,” Eban said that Israeli think tanks, political parties, and media were examining a range of substantive formulas for peace but were being frustrated and “sidetracked” by U.S. encouragement of Shamir’s delaying tactics.
An Israeli journalist living in the United States, citing a 1990 Israeli public opinion poll showing clear majorities in favor of a halt to Israeli settlement construction and of trading territory for peace with security guarantees, noted that the poll suggested that a strong U.S. message and a clear position could influence Israeli political choices and could “help shatter the status quo.” By not sending such a message, through some curtailment in aid to Israel linked to its settlement policies, the journalist asserted, “American policymakers are channeling U.S. tax dollars to increase the power of those forces in Israel whose interests run counter to American values and goals.”
The Bush administration did eventually come to accept the utility of using U.S. aid as a lever with Shamir in an attempt to halt settlement construction, and the pressure did result in Shamir’s defeat at the polls, the election of a Labor government more willing to move forward on substantive issues, and some curtailment of settlement construction. But this curtailment of aid would not occur until 1991, after a Middle East war had been
― 261 ―
fought and much time had been lost in the peace process. In the administration’s first year and a half, although the acrimony between Israel and the United States reached unprecedented levels, nothing tangible changed. Aid continued to flow uninterrupted, increasing in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war by two-thirds, from the standard $3 billion dollars annually to $5 billion, and Israeli settlements continued to be constructed, not only uninterrupted but at an increased pace because of the massive influx of Soviet Jewish immigrants beginning in late 1989. In each of the years 1990 and 1991, the Jewish population of the occupied territories increased by approximately one-quarter.
Although the Bush administration did not take tangible steps early on to impede Israel’s West Bank policies, the settlements issue was a major source of contention between the administration and Israel from the beginning. President Bush became preoccupied with the issue at the time of Shamir’s April 1989 visit. Firmly believing that settlements posed an obstacle to peace, he spoke to Shamir in strong terms during a private meeting and came away from the meeting under the impression that the Israeli leader had agreed to slow or halt the settlement process. A few days later, however, in an episode reminiscent of Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin, Bush learned from the newspapers that the Israeli government was planning to establish several new settlements. He is said to have been outraged, concluding that Shamir was playing him for a fool, and there after he viewed the settlements issue as the litmus test of whether the Israelis were taking him seriously.
Matters came to a head again less than a year later, when Shamir said publicly that a “big Israel”—meaning an Israel including the occupied territories—was needed to absorb tens of thousands of Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel and in a private conversation misled Bush about how many of the immigrants were being housed in the occupied territories. Bush reportedly “wentballistic” when he learned that, contrary to Shamir’s assurances that only 1 percent of the Soviet Jews were living in the territories, in actuality 10 percent were moving into East Jerusalem. Although rarely made a public issue, the United States had not since 1948 recognized Israel’s control over any part of Jerusalem, which under the UN partition plan was designated as an international zone under neither Arab nor Israeli sovereignty. Neither had the United States recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem following the 1967 war or its incorporation of substantial expanses of West Bank land into the city’s borders. By strict U.S. definition therefore—and a definition Bush intended to press—East Jerusalem was part of the occupied territories.
― 262 ―
At this point Baker first raised the possibility, in an off-the-cuff remark before a congressional committee, of refusing an Israeli request for a $400million loan guarantee for housing construction unless Israel agreed to halt the construction of new settlements. Although Baker backed off a bit from the statement, Bush pursued the issue and, having been shown maps detailing extensive settlement construction in East Jerusalem, announced at a news conference in March 1990 that the United States did not believe Israel should build new settlements in either the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
Despite the verbal fireworks between the United States and Israel, Palestinian frustration over the halt to the peace process and Israel’s expanding control over the occupied territories began to mount rapidly in the spring of 1990. Mainstream Palestinian moderates and PLO loyalists in the occupied territories came under increasing attack from “rejectionist” factions and Islamic fundamentalists who were able to point to the fact that a moderate diplomatic approach had failed to produce results and began to urge a return to more militant armed tactics. At the same time, developments on the ground in the occupied territories appeared rapidly to be eliminating the possibility of a meaningful solution. The influx of Soviet Jews was forecast to number as many as five hundred thousand in 1990 alone, and Shamir was openly boasting that Jewish immigration would soon dramatically alter the demographic character of the West Bank and Gaza. In the event, actual Jewish immigration reached only about a quarter of the total predicted, but the demographic changes nonetheless had a dramatic impact on the occupied territories. Housing construction for Jewish settlers soared, reaching a total of thirteen thousand units under construction in 1991 alone, compared to twenty thousand units in all the previous quarter century. By the end of 1991, over a quarter million Israeli settlers lived in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Israel had confiscated 68 percent of the land area of the West Bank. With no expectation that movement in the peace process would halt this inexorable absorption of the occupied territories, with the United States not only doing virtually nothing to move the peace process along but threatening to back off entirely, and with the intifada sputtering to a halt, Palestinians began to feel frustrated that their situation would never improve.
The situation was further aggravated when in May 1990 a mentally unbalanced former Israeli soldier murdered seven West Bank Palestinians working in Tel Aviv. The incident became a symbol for the Palestinians of their vulnerability under Israeli control and their inability to affect their ownfate. In the wake of the killings, the UN Security Council held a special
― 263 ―
session in Geneva to discuss a resolution authorizing a Security Council investigation of the safety of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. U.S. action on a Security Council resolution that would have stood as a kind of guarantee of international protection for the Palestinians became a test for them of U.S. resolve in the peace process and of U.S. willingness to stand up for the protection of Palestinians against Israel. The issue was so important to the Palestinians that local Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini and forty others staged a two-week hunger strike following the massacre of the West Bank workers to underscore the Palestinians’ sense of vulnerability and draw international attention to their situation.
The Bush administration was uncomfortable with the resolution. Under intense pressure from Israel and U.S. supporters of Israel to veto it, U.S. negotiators attempted to weaken the powers of the proposed UN investigatory commission, and the United States was already near a decision to veto when, the night before the Security Council vote, an abortive terrorist attack by a Palestinian splinter group on a Tel Aviv beach ended any uncertainty and induced the United States to cast a veto. The vote—fourteen votes for the resolution, no abstentions, and the one U.S. veto—was characterized by Husseini and the other hunger strikers as a “rude slap in the face” by the United States. Speaking for all Palestinians in the occupied territories, Husseini said at a press conference marking the end of the hunger strike that “instead of encouraging us we are being punished for seeking protection.”
Seeming to ignore the Palestinians’ growing sense of hopelessness and under intense pressure from Congress and the pro-Israel lobby to end the U.S.-PLO dialogue, President Bush demanded that Arafat condemn the abortive terrorist act and discipline its author, Muhammad Abbas (Abu al-Abbas), a maverick member of the PLO Executive Committee, leader of the small Palestine Liberation Front (which conducted the attempted Tel Aviv beach attack), and mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985. Although the beach raid had not been planned or authorized by the PLO and Arafat dissociated the PLO from the attack, he would not explicitly condemn it. Angered by the U.S. veto and the apparent U.S. withdrawal from active involvement in the peace process, Arafat had turned to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, whose strident threats against Israel earlier in the year made him appear a champion to many desperate Palestinians, as well as a pressure point on the United States and a possible means of moving Washington out of its inertia. Arafat began to spend more time in Baghdad and, according to his principal deputy Salah Khalaf, was increasingly coming under
― 264 ―
Saddam’s influence. It was generally believed, in fact, that the attempted Tel Aviv beach raid was engineered by the Iraqi leader as a means of scuttling the peace process and drawing the PLO more closely into his orbit. With the United States and Arafat at loggerheads—the one adamant in its demands of the PLO, the other equally adamant in his refusal—Bush took the decision in late June to suspend the U.S.-PLO dialogue. The stage was thus set for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of the Gulf crisis only six weeks later.
There was clearly no love lost between Israel under Shamir and the United States under Bush, but in the early years of the Bush administration and particularly as the summer of 1990 wound on, it was equally clear that neither Bush nor Baker sensed the seriousness of the situation or the urgent need for movement in the peace process. Quandt observed after the Gulf war that the collapse of the peace process had played into Saddam’s hands; it was, Quandt said, “difficult to imagine his making such an audacious move as the invasion of Kuwait if Israelis and Palestinians had been engaged in peace talks.” It is also difficult to imagine Arafat casting his lot with Saddam if peace talks had been in progress.
The events leading to suspension of the U.S.-PLO dialogue closed a book that would not be reopened until after the Gulf war. The war itself might have been avoided if the Bush administration had better read the signs. Had there been recognition within the administration that Shamir could not be moved without arm-twisting; that much of Israel outside Shamir’s circle was ready for compromise if it appeared the United States was serious; that Congress would probably have allowed the administration as much or nearly as much leeway to exert pressure on Israel in 1989 or 1990 as it later would permit in 1991; that desperation was growing among Palestinians; and that U.S. inaction and the lack of a vision or a plan almost always had grave consequences in the Middle East—the peace process might have moved along somewhat more rapidly.
A unique constellation of forces made real movement in the peace process possible in the aftermath of the Gulf war. The Palestinians had been badly weakened both diplomatically and financially by their alliance with Saddam during the Gulf crisis and were malleable; Israel was more obviously obligated to the United States, which had effectively destroyed the military capability of its most powerful enemy, Iraq, and the Likud government was more susceptible to U.S. pressure; the Soviet Union was on the
― 265 ―
verge of collapse and was, as it had demonstrated during the Gulfwar, much more willing to cooperate with the United States; the U.S. public, increasingly impatient with foreign involvements and massive allocations of foreign aid, was willing to go along with economic pressures on Israel; and, most important, Bush and Baker themselves, emboldened by these developments and by Bush’s unprecedented popularity in the wake of the war, were more than usually willing to take the political risks and use the political muscle necessary to get the peace process moving.
On the face of it, many of these factors might have indicated that there was diminished urgency and no vital U.S. interest in becoming involved in peacemaking. But dangers in the status quo dictated a U.S. interest in attempting to produce movement toward peace. Regional stability continued to be threatened by a perpetuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Continued lack of movement promised to increase the radicalization of both sides, as had been occurring before the Gulf war. There was also some danger that the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, which had been cool from its beginnings over a decade earlier because of the stalemate in the Palestinian situation, would sour further in the absence of some progress for the Palestinians. Perhaps most seriously, without a peace settlement the danger of warfare between Israel and one or more Arab countries was always a possibility, and the existence of unconventional weapons and long-range delivery systems intensified the risks of a major confrontation.
Domestic U.S. political factors, however, probably most directly led Bush and Baker to decide to reopen the peace process and intervene forcefully. In the spring of 1991, Bush had extremely high popularity ratings, and, with an election approaching the following year, he and Baker calculated that a successful Middle East peace, coming on top of a successful Middle East war, would help ensure electoral victory. Presidents normally shied away from tackling the Arab-Israeli issue at this point in their terms, but in this instance Bush seems to have judged that the usually powerful Jewish vote would not be a major factor. He had received less than 30 percent of this vote in 1988, which had all along given him an unusual degree of freedom from political pressure, and with his popularity ratings so high, he felt no need to accommodate this bloc for the 1992 election. Administration political strategists reasoned that with a peace process successfully started, criticism from the Jewish community would be muted in any case. Bush and Baker believed they could challenge Israel and face down Israel’s friends in Congress with relative impunity, accomplishing something, as Bush wrote in his diary, that “no president has done since Ike.”
― 266 ―
Developments in the Middle East over the previous several years, particularly the intifada and the Gulf war, had also produced a sea change in U.S. public perceptions of Israel and the Arabs and thus a major change in the frame of reference from which both the Arabs and Israel were viewed. The changed perceptions produced a shift in the balance of public sympathy, to some degree reducing automatic support for Israel and increasing support for the Palestinians and other Arabs. Public opinion polls began to show that Americans, although still highly supportive of Israel, were more sympathetic to the Palestinians than ever before, more inclined to fault Israel equally with the Arabs for holding up progress toward peace, and eager for the United States to move the peace process along. Consistently, a majority or plurality of respondents in various polls said they favored establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Changed sympathies also tended to raise the level of tolerance for steps that in furtherance of the peace process might exert pressure on Israel and accommodate Palestinian demands. Americans were becoming impatient with foreign entanglements and high levels of foreign aid and, although by no means turning away from Israel, were increasingly impatient with Israel’s hard line. To a much greater extent, the relationship came to be seen as a burden, the peace process as a way out. The intifada and Israel’s harsh response had cast something of a pall on Israel’s image. In addition, the demanding attitude of Israel’s right-wing leaders—who repeatedly defied U.S. attempts to advance the peace process by building new West Bank settlements, even as they were asking the United States for $10 billion in loan guarantees for immigrant housing construction—had begun to irritate many Americans. Editorial cartoonists and commentators openly criticized Shamir for ignoring U.S. requests for concessions while demanding additional aid.
Israel’s attitude and increasing U.S. impatience made it more possible for the Bush administration to disengage from Israel somewhat and in effect to force the Palestinians down Israel’s throat. Whereas aid to Israel had for years been sacrosanct, its demands were now widely seen as excessive, and the new atmosphere made it possible in September 1991 for Bush to request a four-month delay in congressional action on Israel’s loan-guarantee request without provoking a significant outcry from Israeli supporters. It also became possible at no political cost to talk to Palestinians and to force Israel to talk to Palestinians. The frame of reference had perceptibly changed. “The Exodus syndrome is in trouble,” one pro-Israeli activist lamented.
― 267 ―
It had formerly been the case, he said, that when Americans were asked what they thought of when they heard the word “Israeli,” they would think of Paul Newman in the movie Exodus. “President Bush changed that,” he observed. “People now weigh the liabilities and pluses of Israel differently.”
Israelis also began to weigh the liabilities and pluses of the Likud government differently because of President Bush. As many Israeli observers like Eban had said it would, the Israeli electorate, needing to be challenged to move the peace process forward and encouraged in the knowledge that the United States now actively intended to foster movement, voted Shamir out of office in June 1992 and replaced his government with a Labor government more willing to pursue peace negotiations.
Hanan Ashrawi, a leading Palestinian negotiator who became well known in the United States as a spokesperson for the Palestinians during the run-up to the October 1991 Madrid peace conference and afterward, has written that the most notable aspect of Palestinian political discourse was the human dimension and that the rigidly pragmatic approach taken by the Bush administration—working incrementally for what was possible and achievable without setting long-range goals, leaving the difficult issues undefined until a later phase, and ignoring history and the human element—overlooked what she and most Palestinians regarded as the essential elements in a peace settlement. Palestinian shad a keen sense of the importance of getting their story across, “to gain it the legitimacy of human identification and recognition.” Yet the Americans approached the problem reductively, Ashrawi believed, leaving out the “complexity of the conflict with its historical, cultural, and existential dimensions.”
Bringing a consummate pragmatist like the unsentimental Baker—who did not care what the peace process achieved as long as there was an achievement, who was impatient with history and unsympathetic to questions of justice or morality—to an appreciation of the “historical, cultural, and existential dimensions” of the Palestinian question was no easy task. But Ashrawi herself achieved a measure of success in breaching Baker’s reserve and accomplished much in bringing the U.S. public to a better understanding of the Palestinian perspective. More significant, although Baker may not, from the Palestinian standpoint, have been receptive enough to Palestinian concerns, that he listened to these concerns at all, that he negotiated directly with any Palestinians and particularly with those known to be
― 268 ―
affiliated with the PLO, and that he effectively forced the Palestinians on Israel, all constituted a major change in the U.S. approach to the peace process. Baker himself has explained his change of heart, from reluctant peacemaker to activist peacemaker after the war, as emanating both from a practical sense that the United States, having promised to address the Arab-Israeli conflict after the Iraqi crisis had been taken care of, would be criticized if it did not do so, and from a moral obligation because he had given his word. He received some opposition, he says, from administration officials who thought it would be impossible to bring Israel into dialogue with the Palestinians, but Bush, genuinely concerned to resolve the Palestinian problem, was wholly behind the effort.
Baker’s lack of sentimentality and his single-minded and wholly pragmatic pursuit of a formula to convene the Madrid conference brought the wrath of both Palestinians and Israelis down on him. New York Times correspondent Friedman, who followed Baker closely throughout the negotiating process, noted after the Madrid conference had convened that the onlyway Baker had been able to obtain agreement among Israelis and Arabs on even the shape of the table was by simply deciding what he thought was fair and imposing it. To the Palestinians, this approach appeared to favor Israel. Ashrawi, a key player in a series of eighteen meetings with Baker during his eight shuttle missions before the conference, complained that Baker and his team constantly told the Palestinians that Israel would never agree to this or that Palestinian demand; she thought the principal U.S. motivation was to do what was good for Israel and that the Americans believed peace was good for Israel in spite of itself. Baker clearly did lean on the Palestinians hard. When one Palestinian negotiator protested that “we are a people with dignity and pride. We are not defeated,” Baker bluntly responded, “It’s not my fault you backed the losing side” in the Gulf war and reminded the Palestinians that there was a big price to be paid for their “absolutely stupid” behavior. Baker constantly egged the Palestinians on with admonitions like “Don’t let the cat die on your doorstep” or by observing that the train was leaving the station and would go whether they were on board or not. He frankly reminded the Palestinians that their only alternatives were to accept the conditions he was imposing and agree to negotiate or to wait until Israel had confiscated virtually all the land in the occupied territories. The issue, he always insisted, was not what was fair or right but what was realistic.
Baker was hard on Israel as well. At one point when Shamir demanded that Palestinians who attended the peace conference issue a letter explicitly
― 269 ―
disavowing the PLO, Baker flatly told Shamir that such a condition would make it impossible to move forward and he could not insist that the Palestinians “commit suicide.” Simply forcing the Israelis to deal with the Palestinian issue was a rare accomplishment.
Another rare development was the fact that after numerous meetings, during which the Palestinians made their objections to Israeli settlement construction a major theme, Baker understood something of their perspective, particularly why the settlements were so significant to them. By dealing directly with Palestinians rather than through intermediaries, Baker began to see the West Bank/Gaza situation and the general Palestinian situation more nearly as Palestinians themselves did, more nearly in the human terms of which Ashrawi spoke. He began referring in congressional testimony to the Palestinians’ situation as “really quite desperate” and made note of the “human dimension” during his speech at the opening session of the Madrid conference. He is said to have purchased several hundred copies, for distribution to friends, of a 1990 book on the Palestinian issue, We Belong to the Land, by Israeli-Palestinian priest Father Elias Chacour.
The Madrid peace conference put a new, human Palestinian face before the U.S. public as well—the face of Dr. Haidar Abdul-Shafi, who headed the Palestinian delegation, and of Hanan Ashrawi. Abdul-Shafi and Ashrawi had first become known to many Americans in April 1988, when both appeared on ABC television’s Nightline show; host Ted Koppel staged a “town meeting” between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem. Running for several nights, the program brought the two Palestinians—one a senior political figure from Gaza, the other a relatively unknown university professor—to some prominence. But the face they presented at Madrid was new to vast numbers of the U.S. public and the media. The press seemed to discover the Palestinians for the first time at Madrid. Time magazine, which had expressed such surprise in a 1980 cover story that Palestinians were teachers and doctors as well as terrorists and refugees, seemed surprised again that at Madrid they had “presented an image of intelligence, professionalism and sensitivity” that contrasted with the “unshaven face of Yasser Arafat.” CNN spoke of the Palestinians’ “unexpected dignity” and of the previously “hidden” face of Palestinian moderation.
Whatever the magnitude of the changes in the conventional wisdom wrought by the mere presence of Palestinians at a comprehensive peace conference, much remained unchanged, and many of Israel’s most ardent supporters actively sought to maintain the basic structure of the old frame of reference. New themes emerged to compensate for the greater acceptance
― 270 ―
of Palestinians as legitimate participants in the peace process, making it clear that although the conventional wisdom had been fundamentally changed, the guardians of the old Israel-centered framework would make continued efforts to undermine the Palestinian claim to a hearing.
The Bush administration not only started the peace process but forever altered the framework that shaped both public discourse and policy on Palestinian-Israeli issues. The decision finally to deal directly with Palestinians and listen to the Palestinian point of view loosened constraints on thinking and on policy that had impeded progress for decades. But the essential qualities of Bush and Baker as policymakers, the very qualities that had made them so dogged in pursuit of the peace conference, quickly emerged to thwart further progress. Their overriding interest had been in the challenge of convening the conference, and, having achieved that goal, they quickly lost interest. Never particularly interested in the substance of the negotiations, they did not care what direction or pace the talks took. Other challenges, especially Bush’s troubled reelection campaign, diverted their attention, and the peace process was left to the care of the Ross-Haass team, whose frame of reference had not changed substantially from the days when they approached the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from an Israeli perspective, knew little of the Palestinian view point, and advocated a hands off approach to negotiations.
It is difficult to judge Bush administration policymaking in its totality. Its achievement in bringing all parties to the conflict together in a comprehensive peace conference for the first time since Israel’s creation was a major and unprecedented breakthrough. Specifically on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the administration’s acceptance of Palestinian political existence and legitimacy changed the U.S. mind-set about the Palestinians, broadening the framework within which all Americans viewed both Palestinians and Israelis. Although many of the old images and perceptions of Palestinians would remain and both the popular and the policymaking frame of reference would continue for the most part to be Israel-centered, the Palestinians would never in the future be politically invisible and would never be completely excluded from policy calculations. It is probably safe to say that, without Bush’s and Baker’s readiness to work with the Palestinians as a principal party to the negotiations and without the functioning structure of a peace process in place, Israel would not have been encouraged to negotiate with and ultimately recognize the PLO.
― 271 ―
At the same time, however, the administration’s accomplishments were diminished by its failure of vision, its failure to follow through, and its imperfect understanding of both Arabs and Israelis. The fact that policymakers were so unwilling to challenge the Middle East status quo during the administration’s first year and a half contributed to the growth of radicalism among both Arabs and Israelis and allowed Israel’s Likud government a free hand in that period to expand settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza and thereby foreclose many options for peace. Furthermore, having finally begun the peace process so auspiciously in 1991 and so dramatically faced down Shamir over the settlements question the following year, bringing about a change of government in Israel, the Bush team failed to follow through on either issue.
Immediately after the multilateral Madrid conference broke up into separate bilateral groups, Baker and the administration in general lost interest in the peace talks and again pursued the low-key, no-U.S.-intervention policy that had characterized the early period. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin came to the United States in August 1992, two months after his election, Bush and Baker appeared to lose their resolve about imposing a meaningful halt to settlement construction. In return for Israel’s loose agreement to halt construction of new settlements, the United States granted the requested $10 billion in housing loan guarantees, which had been delayed from the previous year. The guarantees were to be spread out over a fiveyear period. The two sides agreed to terms that allowed Israel considerable leeway to continue construction already in progress and at the same time enabled the United States to deduct from each year’s loan guarantees those construction costs that went beyond permissible limits. Israel agreed to cancel construction of six thousand planned housing units in the West Bank, but because construction necessary to accommodate “natural growth” in existing settlements was permitted under the agreement without penalty, some eleven thousand units already under construction were allowed to be finished. Construction was also permitted without restriction in areas that Israel deemed “security areas”—which included nearly half the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem, an area of such concern to Bush in 1990.
The generous terms of this agreement, which was approved by Congress in October 1992, undercut much of what Bush and Baker had attempted to accomplish in halting the expansion of settlements and gave Israel almost everything Shamir had asked for. During the four years of Labor Party rule from 1992 to 1996, even with the restrictions on settlement construction,
― 272 ―
the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories would grow by 49 percent, from 101,000 to 150,000.
In the midst of intensive negotiations with the Palestinians, Baker momentarily understood aspects of the Palestinian perspective, but in his concern to avoid becoming involved in substance he also often misunderstood the Palestinians, occasionally mistaking highly substantive demands for mere points of process. During the negotiations over whether Palestinians from outside the occupied territories and those residing in Jerusalem would be allowed to sit on the Palestinian delegation, for instance, Baker interpreted the Palestinians’ demands as nonsubstantive and accused them of being “hung up on symbols.” This characterization defines the gap between the U.S. and the Palestinian approaches. To Palestinians—and indeed to Israelis—permitting the Palestinians to be represented by the PLO, to display the Palestinian flag, to have representatives of the exile community and Jerusalem residents accepted as legitimate members of the Palestinian collective were all issues of identity that went to the essence of Palestinian national existence. Israelis understood the identity issue well, even if the United States did not, which is why Shamir and the Likud—deeply concerned not to permit Palestinians to be seen as a national entity—were also hung up on these very symbols. In Baker’s process-oriented frame of reference, symbols simply stood as obstacles to progress.
Palestinian novelist Anton Shammas wrote in April 1991, shortly after the first of Baker’s eight trips to the Middle East to organize the Madrid conference, that upon his arrival in Israel Baker had gone straight from the airport to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorialin Jerusalem to lay a wreath. “Inadvertently,” Shammas observed, “he was signaling to the Palestinians, up front, that their voice was going to remain inaudible, not only because their dialect lacks what a language has (an army, a navy, an air force), but because their pain is deemed to be forever filtered through the dark, largerthan-life muffler of the Holocaust, forever insignificant in juxtaposition.”
Even with a U.S. administration intent on involving the Palestinians in negotiations and on not totally accommodating Israel, the Palestinian voice was and would remain far less audible than Israel’s, its symbols less important than Israel’s, as had always been the case. Discussing the vital role of language in political discourse, Shammas noted that Zionists viewed the creation of a Jewish state as the “re-territorialization of the Hebrew language,” and when Palestinians were displaced, their scattering was done in Hebrew. Until the intifada, Palestinians had remained completely inaudible, the hidden component of what came to be known as the Arab-Israeli
― 273 ―
rather than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The intifada gave the Palestinians “a voice within the language of the conflict,” Shammas said, but in their present state they would remain people “without a territorialized language, people of dialect.” Although it did much to change the framework of thinking on the conflict and to help the Palestinian voice be heard, the Bush administration did not change the reality that the Palestinians still had no real language.