Though there will be no breakthroughs on Middle East peace over the coming American election year, U.S. leaders will need to summon the “political will and determination” to again take up the vexing quest for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement when political conditions in the region allow, former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, told a conference at USIP on November 2, 2011.

November 8, 2011

Though there will be no breakthroughs on Middle East peace over the coming American election year, U.S. leaders will need to summon the “political will and determination” to again take up the vexing quest for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement when political conditions in the region allow, former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, told a conference at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on November 2.

Baker, in keynote remarks at an event marking the twentieth anniversary of the landmark Madrid peace conference, conceded that the peace process is now “on life-support,” but he said that the American president will need to take “bold action” in the future when Israeli and Palestinian leaders are ready for another try.

Baker criticized the Obama administration. But, he quickly added, “the lack of leadership and will has occurred in both Republican and Democratic administrations.”

The Madrid conference launched the first direct negotiations between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors, including those representing the Palestinians and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.  In recalling the intense diplomacy in the months following the Gulf War of 1991, Baker said that “Madrid revealed the critical importance of the role of the United States as a credible and effective broker.”

Said Baker, “The past shows that we can succeed. And the future will judge us harshly if we fail.”

The anniversary event, “Twenty Years after Madrid: Lessons Learned and the Way Forward for Arab-Israeli Peacemaking,” was co-sponsored by USIP and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. It brought together many of the former diplomats involved in Madrid, a gathering that broke the taboo on Israelis bargaining face-to-face with key Arab adversaries and set land-for-peace as the negotiating framework that continues to this day. Madrid opened the door to other advances, including the start of a self-governing Palestinian National Authority and an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. It also facilitated subsequent progress on clarifying the final-status issues in a settlement: territory, Palestinian refugees, security, the status of Jerusalem, and normalization of relations with Israel. 

Former President George H.W. Bush, in a videotaped interview played at the USIP-Baker event, recalled the historic events of that period—events that bolstered U.S. standing as the pre-eminent global power and led him and Baker to conclude that they had an opportunity to advance a peace process in the Middle East with Washington playing the role of “honest broker.” Those developments included the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s forces in Kuwait by a U.S.-led coalition; the fall of the Berlin Wall; and new diplomatic flexibility by a Soviet Union itself about to vanish as East Bloc communism collapsed. “We had come to Madrid on a mission of hope,” Bush said. “The political landscape had dramatically changed….We decided to take advantage of this historic moment.”

Baker described himself as a convert to Mideast peacemaking at a time when face-to-face negotiations seemed “far-fetched.” Previous secretaries of state had warned him to “stay away” from the endeavor. “The last thing I wanted to do was get anywhere remotely close to the Arab-Israeli dispute,” he said.

The current standstill in Middle East talks, Baker argued, reflects not only the usual U.S. preoccupation with presidential politics but also the unreadiness of both Israel and the Palestinians to forge peace. That there is “no chance of a breakthrough” in the coming year, he said, is not entirely a bad thing: “The last thing we need right now is another failure.”

Baker said that the Palestinians, currently locked in a paralyzing political split between the nationalist Fatah party and the Islamist Hamas movement, “must be united in supporting negotiations for peace,” with one bargaining position and one authority. All the delay is ratcheting up Palestinian frustration, strengthening the influence of Hamas and other radical groups, he said. 

The Arab Spring, if it spreads democracy and human rights, should benefit the region over the long run, he said, but in the short run Arab leaders will feel it is “harder for them to engage in peace talks with Israel.” Baker also expressed fear that the Arab Spring “may degenerate into an Arab Winter, particularly if popular uprisings shift Arab attention from domestic issues to the Palestinian cause.”

As for Israel, the former secretary suggested that a solution would require an Israeli government “that is prepared to lean forward for peace. … The current Israeli government fails that test.” Baker singled out the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank for making compromise harder for the Israelis and jeopardizing a two-state outcome.

When conditions improve on both sides of the conflict, he said, the U.S. president should invite the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Washington and present a proposal outlining the contours of a final-status Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, with a timeline for negotiating the main issues. The U.S. role, he said, “must be hands on.”

In the meantime, to preserve the progress already made toward a two-state solution, Baker urged that U.S. policy focus on three goals: maintaining the cease-fire in Gaza; ensuring that Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation continues; and preserving the peace accord between Egypt and Israel.

Baker’s keynote address was followed by a panel of former Israeli and Arab foreign policy officials who reviewed both the legacy of Madrid and the entrenched obstacles to peacemaking.

For Israelis, said former peace negotiator Nimrod Novik, “this framework gave us the recognition we were seeking.” For Palestinians, said Nabil Sha’ath, the former Palestinian chief negotiator, Madrid signaled that the United States “will be there and stay the course” in mediation efforts, thereby helping redress the “disparity of power” with Israel. More broadly, Madrid produced the “distinct accomplishment of having Arabs and Israelis sitting at the same table,” said Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi Arabian intelligence and an ambassador to the United States.

The panelists were significantly less upbeat about prospects for peace efforts today, though they broadly agreed that persistent American diplomacy could help prepare the way for an eventual “Madrid II.”

While noting that “we’re not too far” from the basic shape of a deal, Sha’ath assailed Israeli settlement activity as undermining the process. “You cannot negotiate land for peace when the land is vanishing under the table,” he said. “The shape of the West Bank is changing.” He said that the Palestinian quest for recognition at the United Nations—opposed by Israel and the United States—does not mean an abandonment of the peace process but is rather an effort to improve the Palestinians’ power in their relationship with Israel as well as to respond to popular demands.

Though the exchanges among the panelists were cordial, Turki nonetheless registered Arab bitterness with an open-ended peace “process,” adding, “The word has become vile in the Arab world….Just do things, for God’s sake.” Turki said that Obama “has to lead” and he urged Palestinians to give up any armed struggle against Israel and respond with non-violent civil disobedience.

Eytan Bentsur, a former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warned that the region is drifting away from peace efforts. “Time is of the essence. We don’t have the year to wait for presidential elections in the United States,” he said. 

Part of the reason for that sense of urgency lies with the uncertainties generated by the Arab Spring, which has uprooted governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya and challenged those in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. Egypt is a particular worry for the Israelis. “The jury on the Arab Spring is still out,” said Novik. “Egypt is being formed now for the next decade or so.”

The clout of Hamas, which controls Gaza, also fosters Israeli caution about making major compromises. Sha’ath said that Hamas is moving toward a more secular, Turkish-style model of politics. But Hamas has yet to renounce the use of violence against Israel and remains, said Bentsur, “a world apart” from it.

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