The James Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University has published a major report entitled “Getting to the Territorial Endgame of an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Settlement” based on off-the-record deliberations of former U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian officials over an 18-month period. The reports calls, among other things, for Washington to play a more aggressive role in getting the two sides to a peace agreement, including by offering a “bridging proposal” on territory and borders.
Noting the new report, the National Journal Saturday published an interview with Baker and his top Middle East aide, Institute’s director Edward Djerejian, in which he accuses Obama of “caving in” on the settlements issue and argues that it is “not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements” in light of the aid that we have provided to its government. Like Jimmy Carter — and for that matter, Defense Minister Ehud Barak — Baker also argues that Israel will have negotiate a peace with Palestinians or “become an apartheid type of nation.”
Some quotes from the interview, which is unfortunately not available on the Internet:
NJ: Secretary Baker, do you fault the Obama administration for initially insisting on a “freeze” on Israeli settlements, a proposal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected outright?
Baker: I don’t fault President Obama for making settlements an issue, but I do fault him for caving in. You can’t take a position that is consistent with U.S. policy going back many years, and the minute you get push-back you soften your position. When you are dealing with foreign leaders, they can smell that kind of weakness a thousand miles away. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have long endorsed the U.S. policy that settlements are an obstacle to peace. If “land for peace” is the path to a resolution, then settlements clearly create facts on the ground that foreclose the possibility of negotiations.
I would also stress that United States taxpayers are giving Israel roughly $3 billion each year, which amounts to something like $1,000 for every Israeli citizen, at a time when our own economy is in bad shape and a lot of Americans would appreciate that kind of helping hand from their own government. Given that fact, it is not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements.
NJ: You were the only senior U.S. official to ever use the leverage of U.S. aid to try to halt the continuing construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Did you ever regret that decision?
Baker: No, because if we hadn’t done that, the  Madrid Conference would never have happened. But you have to remember the context. At the time Israel was asking for $10 billion to help them settle Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union and elsewhere, on top of the $3 billion we were already giving them annually. We had also recently repealed a United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism. We had just decimated the Iraqi military machine, removing a major threat to Israel.
Against that backdrop, we had an opportunity to convene a historic conference where the Arabs were willing to reverse 25 years of policy and meet face-to-face with Israeli leaders. So we told the Israelis that we wouldn’t give them the extra $10 billion unless they agreed to respect the U.S. position regarding settlements. Israeli leaders told us they would just get the money from the U.S. Congress. Our reply was, “We’ll see you on Capitol Hill.” And we eventually won the vote on that bill. So I don’t regret that decision at all.
NJ: Ambassador, why did your report call for a specific U.S. “bridging proposal” on territory and borders, instead of proposing that the two sides just get back to the negotiating table to settle those issues themselves?
Djerejian: Because absent a proactive American role in bringing the two parties closer together and showing them that the necessary territorial compromises are possible, this issue will not be resolved simply by direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s why a U.S. bridging proposal is so important. President Obama will have to spend political capital, however, because there are elements on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and perhaps domestically, who will attack a bridging proposal.
NJ: Given the myriad problems he faces at home and abroad, why should Obama spend his already depleted political capital on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that has eluded so many presidents over so many years?
Djerejian: Fundamentally, because this issue affects the United States’ core national security interests. The Arab-Israeli conflict, and especially the Palestinian issue, remains one of the most contentious and sensitive issues in the entire Muslim world. The Palestinian issue can get Muslims demonstrating in the streets from Jakarta to Nigeria to Lebanon. Osama bin Laden exploits the plight of the Palestinians, as does [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, as did [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein.
When the United States is expending its blood and treasure fighting insurgencies in overwhelmingly Muslim Iraq and Afghanistan, the dots are even easier to connect. It’s all part of a very important whole. We would be naive to think that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will eliminate the problems of terrorism and radicalization in the Islamic world, but it will go a long way toward draining the swamp of issues that extremists exploit for their own ends. So I think any American president would be well-advised to tackle this issue. How much political capital to spend at any given time, however, is a decision only the president himself can make.
NJ: Secretary Baker, how do you assess today’s prospects for a peace deal?
Baker: Well, the situation is difficult, but there are some new dynamics in play. First and foremost, there is a general appreciation on the part of the Israeli body politic that Israel will be unable to maintain both its Jewish and democratic character as long as it continues to occupy Arab lands and, in particular, the West Bank. More and more Israelis understand that sooner or later, the demographics of occupation [given higher Arab birthrates] are going to overwhelm them. If Israel doesn’t want to become an apartheid type of nation — and as a democracy I don’t believe it does — then in order to retain its Jewish, democratic character Israel will have to find a negotiated peace. As positive as the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza was, it showed that unilateral actions alone will not bring about a lasting peace.
NJ: Secretary Baker, given current circumstances and your long experience with this problem, is a two-state solution still attainable?
Baker: Yes, because everyone knows what a two-state solution looks like and the general formula for getting there. Ed is right — the tough thing is marshaling the necessary political will. In that regard, I always stress a few axioms for negotiating the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, because of our special relationship with Israel and the fact that we’re trusted by the Israelis in ways that other nations are not, you will get no progress toward peace without active U.S. participation. Second, there is no military solution to this conflict, meaning a lasting peace depends on United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. Three, it’s the hard-liners on both sides that are the real problem.
My fourth axiom is the real Catch-22: Israel will never enjoy real security as long as it occupies Palestinian land, and Palestinians will never achieve an independent state as long as Israel feels insecure. The most important thing the United States can do is help them both out of that conundrum.