The Road to Madrid — James Baker and the Middle East Peace Talks
The Madrid Peace Conference, held from October 30 to November 1, 1991, marked the first time that Israeli leaders negotiated face to face with delegations from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and, most importantly, with the Palestinians. The George H.W. Bush Administration believed there was a window of opportunity to use the political capital generated by the U.S. victory in the Gulf War to revitalize the Arab-Israeli peace process. The idea was to convene a multi-party international conference, co-chaired by a more cooperative USSR which would collapse by year’s end, that would then break into separate bilateral and multilateral negotiating tracks. Secretary of State James Baker was the driving force behind the effort, making eight diplomatic visits to the region to get support for the conference.
The negotiations that took place during these visits were often long, contentious, and frustrating. Israel and its Arab neighbors had different desires and expectations, and concessions needed to be made on both sides before bilateral discussions could even occur. Though the results of the Madrid Conference were somewhat disappointing, the face-to-face negotiations that took place were of significant symbolic value.
William Andreas Brown, who served as Ambassador to Israel from 1988 to 1992, was one of Secretary Baker’s key advisors in the run-up to the conference. In this lengthy account, he discusses the situation on the ground, including with the Israeli settlements; the complications presented by the fall of the USSR and the Gulf War; the frustrations dealing with the difficult delegations, including the “crybaby” Palestinians; as well as Secretary Baker’s “disturbing” negotiating style. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting November 1998.
You can also read about the negotiations at Camp David and other Moments on the Middle East. Go here for an in-depth look at Secretary Baker and this on his “Baker’s half dozen” precepts for foreign policy.
Three Key Questions for Israel
BROWN: The first Baker visit was rather friendly, although the Secretary was beginning to drop markers on the Israelis and the Palestinians. In essence, he said to the Israelis: “We’re not going to deal with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] on this. However, you’ve got to deal realistically on this matter, you have to appreciate our limitations and you will have to make substantive and symbolic concessions.”
Shortly thereafter there was a U.S. request for a responsible Israeli to go and see Dennis Ross [Director of Policy Planning in the State Department, pictured] and Secretary of State Baker quietly. Dan Meridor was a brilliant young minister in the Shamir Government from a prestigious Likud-Herut family.
Meridor nominally went to Washington for some other purpose but came back with a letter from Baker containing three basic questions that were to set the scene for subsequent discussions. They were:
1) Was Israel willing to seek a permanent solution to Arab-Israeli problems, based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, that is, embodying the concept of exchanging territory for peace?
2) Was Israel willing to attend a regional conference to be co-hosted by the U.S. and the Soviet Union? The Soviet Union was still nominally intact, but by now it was very much weakened.
3) Would the Israelis agree to a moderate-sized, Palestinian delegation to consist of seven members or so which would not include people from East Jerusalem nor deportees? That harks back to the earlier 1989-90 debate on what kind of Palestinian the Israelis would be willing to deal with.
Those three questions were what the Israeli Government was now faced with. The answers were expected to be “Yes or No.”
Understandably, the Israelis were divided among themselves. Remember that [Israeli] Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Shamir had now brought into the government some ultra-Right types, including representatives of Tsomet, headed by Raful Eyetan, former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, and “Moledet,” which had either two or three members in the Knesset [Israeli Parliament]. Moledet’s leader was Ze’evi, whose solution for dealing with the Palestinian Arabs was to transfer them elsewhere. That is, send them to Jordan or wherever. Those groups vociferously denounced this whole idea, from the very beginning, as a sellout which would lead to perdition.
Within the Likud itself there were great divisions as to what they were after, what they would agree to, and so forth. I won’t go into all of the details, because you could spend hours and hours on them. Prime Minister Shamir was typically himself. He was reticent, slow-moving, and tended to procrastinate. As such, he would drive people up the wall, including Secretary of State James Baker and some of Shamir’s own people.
Disillusionment and discussions
As time went on, more and more pressure came from Baker, who developed a practice of visiting various capitals and giving the Israelis a general picture but not the real nitty-gritty details of his discussions with President Assad of Syria or others….
Back and forth went Secretary of State Baker. He developed a style in dealing with the Israelis which personally I considered quite bothersome. In any event, it was obvious to me that if I was going to play a role here, as a loyal ambassador I would have to mix it up with the Israelis. I had no qualms about that and I gave Secretary Baker my best advice as to the problems and how to overcome them.
Baker rapidly became disillusioned with Israeli Foreign Minister [David] Levy. He saw that Levy was principally interested in gaining the limelight. Levy had some utility to us by posing as being accommodating, but only if he could gain some control, and the control remained in the hands of Shamir (Photo: Jennifer Law/AFP/Getty Images)
Baker didn’t want to stop by Levy’s office any longer and just listen to Levy, whom he labeled as a gas bag. (Baker used pejorative terms for his interlocutors, which I’d better not go into.)
Instead, Baker preferred to go straight to Prime Minister Shamir’s office. So I would have difficulties with Eyetan Ben Tsour, who was working for Levy. Eyetan would say, “Well, couldn’t Baker stop by Levy’s office for a minute or two?” with the press outside, and so forth.
Baker talked with Prime Minister Shamir, and he would see Defense Minister Arens occasionally on the side. When Baker saw Shamir, the key sessions would usually end up with Shamir using Eli Rubenstein [former DCM at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, head of the Israeli delegation to the Madrid Conference] and Yusip Ben Aron to do the heavy lifting on the Israeli side. They would come, as always, fully prepared and with all kinds of arguments, counter-arguments, and proposals for the U.S. to obtain concessions from the Palestinians and other Arabs, in addition to venting criticism over the way things were going.
Shamir would just sit there and let the conversation go back and forth. It would end up with Secretary Baker speaking sharply to Rubenstein and Yusip Ben Aron, with Dennis Ross and me really taking them on. We would get into rather heated exchanges, while Prime Minister Shamir just sat there, rather Sphinx-like in his manner, to Secretary Baker’s frustration.
Then Baker would go and meet with the Palestinians. They were often, excuse the expression, sort of crybabies, whining and entreating him for help.
They had nothing to offer, except the image of Palestinians meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State. They were always criticizing and requesting concessions. Through various channels it became obvious to us that they really had no clout and were sort of winging it as best they could figure, while trying to stay in the good graces of Yasser Arafat, 1,000 miles away in Tunis.
To a degree… [Baker and Washington] were trying to apply a pre-determined solution. Now, they were not fools. We’re talking about experienced people. Secretary of State Baker was a good leader. He came to the Middle East well-prepared. He brought a terrific team with him, which was up to speed and coming up with ideas and formulas and so forth….
At that stage things were so delicate that, whatever we thought on the side, the stance had to be, “Let’s see if we can promote the formation of a native or, if you will, local Palestinian delegation and hope that Arafat would permit this delegation to go along with the game….”
Of course, the Palestinians would tell us, over and over again, that their real leader was Yasser Arafat. We would be in the position of saying: “Yes, but let’s not get into that.” We knew, of course, that the Israelis knew virtually everything that was going on.
After a meeting with Secretary Baker, the Palestinians we were talking to would run out, pull out their cell phones, and start calling Tunis to report in to Arafat. …Of course, the Israelis would intercept these reports and learn what the Palestinians said about their exchanges with Secretary Baker.
Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories
I think that it’s worth a moment to pause here and speak of other atmospherics. First of all, the Israeli settlement activity continued. This was really angering Washington now….This kind of settlement activity had angered President [George H.W.] Bush in 1989-90. Now, it made a very bad impression when Washington found out that Prime Minister Shamir was permitting settlement activity to continue.
Remember that there had been a tremendous influx of Soviet Jews, and particularly Russians and Ukrainians, most of them coming from urban environments. Most of them wanted to settle in the belt around Tel Aviv, a small number went to settlements in the occupied territories. Remember that a number of these settlements were rather large. We’re talking about communities of 10,000 to 20,000 people. These were virtually bedroom communities, from which you could be at a job in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem in 15 or 20 minutes.
Considerable publicity ensued regarding both the construction and the extension of settlements, old and new. The Israelis had developed a tricky way of setting up a new settlement by labeling it an extension of an old settlement. I’d protested against this practice on many occasions.
Of course, it was an absolute demand of all Palestinians that this kind of settlement construction had to stop. From the Palestinian viewpoint, it even had to be reversed.
Well, Prime Minister Shamir wasn’t about to do anything like this. So this was a point of constant aggravation between ourselves and the Israelis. Coincidentally, the Intifada was still going on, and there was a rash of ongoing, terrorist incidents against Israeli soldiers and civilians both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Some gruesome, murderous actions also occurred among Palestinians, chiefly against those suspected of collaborating with the Israelis.
As Defense Minister in charge of the Occupied Territories, [Moshe] Arens was in a bind. On the one hand, Arens had come to the conclusion that the Israelis had to deal with the Palestinians and that they could no longer hope somehow to solve this problem through the Jordanians or others.
“The atmosphere was by no means calm and cool”
In conversations with me Arens (pictured) was in effect advocating municipal elections. There were precedents for municipal elections in the occupied territories. This was a subject of contention because Arafat and company could see that the Israeli goal here was to circumvent any possibility of territorial concessions and, once again, go to the U.S. and the world and say in effect, “You see? We have found a local group of Palestinians who have chosen democratically elected village councils. We can do business with these people. They can control cleaning up their own streets, the water system, and that sort of thing. However, nothing more than that.”
Prime Minister Shamir was also against elections in the Occupied Territories. He feared that this would lead to demands by the elected Palestinians for the establishment of an independent, Palestinian entity. Meanwhile, the Intifada and the rash of terrorist incidents continued.
Arens proclaimed curfews in Gaza, which was then very heavily dependent on the Israeli economy for employment. 50,000 to 100,000 Gazans were coming across the border with Israel every day to work on farms and do the dirty work at construction sites. This was virtually their only means of earning an income for a very young population of 700,000 which was increasing at an extraordinary rate.
Proclaiming a curfew and stopping them from working in Israel was a very serious move. However, Arens, like Rabin before him, on occasion felt that there was no other way to deal with the problem of terrorism. The curfew would be proclaimed. It might be lifted a few days later, but as the terrorist incidents continued, this became a major problem.
The situation in Gaza got so bad that the cry arose, particularly in the Likud camp led by Ariel Sharon, for tougher measures such as those which Sharon in the 1970s had imposed in brutally suppressing disturbances in Gaza.
So the atmosphere was by no means calm and cool. It was fractious. President Bush was angry with Prime Minister Shamir, and Secretary Baker developed the habit of stating to Shamir: “If you think what I’m saying is tough, Mr. Prime Minister, you ought to hear what my good friend of 30 years, President George Bush, is saying.”
The conversations between Baker and Shamir’s entourage, myself included, at times became quite sharp.
Baker developed the technique of saying: “Look, I will try to accommodate your concerns here but I’ve got other concerns with the Syrians. If you will give me what is necessary to work with, I will accommodate you by a separate side letter.”
The Israelis would say, “What are you promising the Syrians on this issue?” Baker would temporize in his answer. He would not reveal the nitty gritty details. Of course, the Israelis had their own means of trying to determine that.
Another technique of Baker’s was to tell his ambassadors, and that certainly included me, that there was to be no reporting of his conversations with either Israelis or anyone else. When he and I were alone, he would say to me: “I don’t want that ‘blankety-blank’ AIPAC [American Israeli Public Affairs Committee] to know what’s going on.”
So I prepared no cables or memoranda of conversations which Baker had. It all stayed with me. I had my notes of what was said at these meetings, which were subsequently destroyed.
However, knowledge of what was said at these meetings all stayed in-house, that is, in Secretary Baker’s entourage. We were instructed not to communicate, back and forth, with our other ambassadors. I was not to let Ambassador Ed Djerejian [in Damascus] and other ambassadors on the circuit know what was going on. That would all be handled by Secretary Baker’s party. That was an interesting way to run a show….
I completely adhered to Baker’s overall goal and objectives. I was a loyal ambassador and did my best to contribute creatively. Indeed, I engaged in this effort in a spirited manner, using Secretary Baker’s arguments with Eli Rubenstein, Yosi Ben Aron, Israeli Defense Minister Arens, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
However, the atmosphere in which I worked was somewhat shocking, and the image that emerged was that the Bush Government was tough and harsh, vis-a-vis Israel. In effect, we were playing a strong hand and a rough kind of ball with the Israelis.
“Mr. Secretary, that’s political dynamite”
If I may switch over to the Palestinian side at this point, they were in a very difficult position, as I look back at it. They were always asking for something.
At one point Faisal Husseini [member of the Supreme Muslim Council in Jerusalem, pictured] said to Secretary Baker: “You’re talking to a dead man! Threats have been made on my life. There’s threatening graffiti on the wall of my house. I have young children,” and so forth. Faisal Husseini said that the Israelis were behind all of this.
Baker responded, do you need security protection? Maybe we can train some Palestinian security types to give you appropriate protection. We have specialists in this field.”
I remember a side conversation in this regard with the head of the Israeli Security Service. The Israeli smiled and said to me, “Yes, Faisal Husseini has problems, but they’re not problems with us. His problems are with the Palestinians.” The thrust of those remarks was: “If you Americans want to go off and train some Palestinian security people, good luck, but that’s not the problem.”
I can remember Secretary Baker straining to convey to the Palestinians that he was doing his best. He would imply that if they would only give him more to work with, perhaps he could help them more. Baker was an outstanding negotiator. He made you feel that, by God, he had gone the extra mile for you, but you weren’t coming up with enough to give him what he needed to work with.
At one point the conversation with the Palestinians in the Consul General’s house in Jerusalem went to the point where the Palestinians were asking for an expression of “self-determination.” There was a long pause, and Secretary Baker turned to his entourage and asked, “Why can’t I use that expression?” Neither Dennis Ross nor anybody else said anything.
Finally, I said, “Because, Mr. Secretary, that’s political dynamite.” For years U.S. administrations had adamantly opposed the use of the expression, “self-determination” for the Palestinians. This was a code word for an independent, Palestinian state, run by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]. I felt that at that point and in that kind of conversation I had to say this.
Well, as you can imagine, the Palestinians glared at me, and my name, as the American Ambassador to Israel, which was probably muddied anyhow as far as they were concerned, was muddied even further. However, that’s what you have to go through.
Post-Gulf War complications
[At the end of the Gulf War, the] main components of the situation [affecting the negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors], as I saw them, were as follows:
1) The Soviet Union had imploded. No longer were we dealing with the traditional, Cold War, balance of forces, play and counter-play, in the Middle East. Already, some time before, the Soviet presence in Syria and Soviet clout and support, in the sense of providing arms, subsidies, and personnel had declined.
For many years the Soviets had had hundreds, if not thousands, of military personnel in the area. The Syrian armed forces, for example, were equipped with Soviet weapons. The Syrian Air Force had Soviet aircraft, trained along Soviet lines, and operated in terms of Soviet doctrine. All of this required a very hefty subsidy on the part of Moscow, using Syria to counter Israel and playing for the larger Arab vote as part and parcel of the Cold War struggle with the United States.
All of that was now gone. This meant that the efforts and past influence of Mr. [Yevgeniy] Primakov and others in the Soviet Government, whether you were talking about the KGB, the Soviet military, and so forth, were very severely set back, if not wiped out. For all practical purposes, they were practically nil. For the sake of appearances, President Bush and Secretary of State Baker decided to continue going through the motions of having the Soviet Union co-sponsor activities in the Middle East, as we went along. However, that was just showmanship.
2) Secondly, although one can argue that Saddam Hussein and the elite, Iraqi Republican Guard should have been completely eliminated, a tremendous blow had been inflicted on Iraq, in terms of military clout and economic infrastructure. A series of restrictions continue to this. U.S. aircraft are still periodically bombing selected military targets in Iraq. One of the two great, strategic threats to Israel, that is, Iraq, had been knocked out for up to 10 years, depending on how the follow-up to the Gulf War went.
The other threat remaining, of course, was Iran, which was farther removed from the scene but which was of concern to the Israelis, in terms of Iran’s nuclear and missile potential. In negotiating, whether with the Israelis or with anyone else in what became a multi-faceted process culminating in the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991, this was of enormous importance.
Meanwhile, Jordan and the PLO were both in the doghouse. By word and deed they had acted in a most foolish way, from my viewpoint. Particularly with regard to the Palestinians, one could argue that poor King Hussein, caught between a rock and a hard place, may have felt that he had little choice but to act and speak as he did.
However, the Jordanian economy, which was already weak before the Gulf War, was dealt a very heavy blow. The Saudis cut off their subsidy to Jordan, cut off the flow of oil in the pipeline into Jordan, and simply would have nothing to do with the resuscitation of the Jordanian economy or the prestige of King Hussein in any form or manner. The same thing applied to the subsidies formerly paid by the Saudis to the PLO.
For years the Saudis, through one means or another, whether private, public, or semi-public, had allowed money to flow to Yasser Arafat and various factions in the PLO supporting him. That all stopped. As I mentioned before, Kuwait brutally expelled tens of thousands of Palestinians, charging that the Palestinians had collaborated with the Iraqi occupation forces in Kuwait. So this was a heavy, further blow to the Palestinians in general and to Jordan as well, because when the Palestinians were kicked out of Kuwait, no country would take them except Jordan.
The image used in Israel at that time was that the Palestinians were dancing with joy on the roofs of their homes [in support of Saddam Hussein.] Maybe this was an exaggeration, but it was a widely held stereotype, as a result of which the Palestinians were in a really weak, negotiating position.
At the time there was a great rush to get the goodies in the form of equipment, etc., when the United States finished this major, overseas war effort. We spent a great amount of time and money transporting huge amounts of military equipment to the Middle East. Subsequently, much of this was then deemed surplus to our needs. Rather than ship this equipment back to the United States, U.S. logisticians began looking for ways to get rid of it in the Middle East itself. For the Egyptians, Saudis, the Israelis and others, these goodies were up for grabs. This was something that a negotiator like Secretary Baker could play with…
“El Supremo” United States
The United States had emerged as “El Supremo” as a result of the Gulf War. We were unchallenged. There was no Soviet Union to contend with. We had pulled off a tremendous victory, which was called “The 100 Hours War,” with great, added prestige accruing to us.
As a result of the Gulf War President Bush was at his height in terms of popularity. Congress, whatever its earlier misgivings about getting into the war, was now, elated. The President’s reception by Congress after the end of the war was tumultuous. He was given great acclaim for his achievement. So, when Secretary Baker toured the Middle East, he had a tremendously favorable negotiating position…
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was then a private person, remarked to me at the time, as did Defense Minister Arens, that the Israeli economy was at a standstill. Factories had been closed. The Israeli people had been instructed to stay at home. So the Israeli economy came to a grinding halt.
This revealed to me a unique Israeli vulnerability which I had not previously appreciated. When faced with conventional war previously, the Israelis had struck hard and fast struck across their borders. Until the SCUDs attacks of 1991, those wars had been fought elsewhere, outside of Israel or on its borders. The SCUD attacks set in train a new, extra dynamic: the quest for an anti-missile missile and a kind of brand new, radar system which could detect incoming missiles at supersonic speeds, launched from great distances.
This situation also must have set in mind for some Israelis the need for adequate [peace] settlements and turning Israel’s diplomatic resources to cope with the emergent threats of the future….
A diplomatic coup
These, then, were some of the main factors that Secretary Baker and his outstanding team in the State Department, including Dennis Ross, Dan Kurtzer, Aaron Miller and others, could bring into play. What I’m talking about now is a process involving eight trips to the Middle East from March 12, 1991, through mid-October, 1991, culminating in the Madrid Peace Conference, which started on October 30-31, 1991.
I have to give Secretary Baker and his entourage full marks for pulling off a diplomatic coup. They deserve great credit.
I would also note, on the Israeli front, as former Secretary Kissinger and others have said, the Israeli negotiating style is little short of maddening. The Israelis often go into arcane arguments and attempt, over an excruciating length of time, day and night, to extract maximum advantage over as broad a spectrum as they can. That is a well-known pattern in the eyes of professional American negotiators….
A process like that could be very frustrating for a man like Secretary Baker, who wanted to move on and had a lot on his mind. His itineraries were complex. He would be moving on from seeing Prime Minister Shamir to go to see President Assad up in Syria. Then he might be going to Saudi Arabia to see the Saudis. Baker had many other items on his platter, as well as the peace process itself. The fact that Shamir had his own splits within Likud also further complicated the process.
Splinter parties in the Knesset
Shamir’s coalition government had been in office for some time, and like all Israeli coalitions which have been in office for a time, it was beginning to come apart at the seams. The Right Wing splinter parties in Shamir’s Government, which provided him with a majority of five or six seats in the Knesset, were to the Right of the Likud. They were named: “Tsomet,” headed by Raful Eyetan, former hard line Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and “Moledet,” led by Ze’evi, another, former general who advocated the transfer of the Palestinians from the occupied territories to elsewhere… Another of the Right-Wing splinter parties was Tehiya, led by Yakub Neeman.
These splinter parties, and Ariel Sharon within the Likud, were harping away against Prime Minister Shamir’s allegedly giving away the farm. They were calling for larger, not smaller settlements in the occupied territories. They were calling for much tougher measures against the Intifada, which, while it was showing some signs of fatigue, was nevertheless a very, very disconcerting phenomenon. They advocated stronger measures in Lebanon, where President Assad of Syria was squeezing the Christian Lebanese more and more tightly, thereby giving more play to what became known as the Hezbollah group [Muslim extremist group]. So Shamir’s task was further complicated by this situation.
“At times, inwardly and privately, I found Secretary Baker’s style disturbing”
Having said all of that, I want to stress that, throughout this period, I remained loyal to Secretary Baker and President Bush. I was, after all, their Ambassador to Israel. I supported Bush in every way that I could. I often offered him tactical advice, as a professional Ambassador should do. This situation, where I had internal misgivings, was a very private thing for me. I couldn’t go around sharing thoughts with others.
I must say that, at times, inwardly and privately, I found Secretary Baker’s style disturbing. It was tougher than I thought necessary. From his personal and private remarks to me I felt that his attitude toward certain Israeli leaders, as well as others, bordered on the contemptuous. I remember Secretary Baker repeatedly referring to King Hussein, when we were alone, as the “P. L. K.” [Plucky Little King]. It was said in a tone of contempt. (Read about an earlier disagreement with King Hussein.)
Now, many negotiators, especially those going through a prolonged process of stress, will often lash out in private, so one should take my remarks as the listener or the reader wishes to do. However, this attitude of Secretary Baker’s posed a professional dilemma for me. As I said, I was of the view, from the very beginning of my tenure as Ambassador to Israel, that a peace process could be put together. I had so recommended it to Secretary Baker and, by golly, here he was doing it! Baker had many balls in the air at the same time as he negotiated with the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In this context I mean the local Palestinians. Remember that our dialogue with the PLO had ceased and remained closed at this stage, given the May 30, 1990, attack against the Israeli coast near Tel Aviv and PLO conduct during the Gulf War. So Secretary Baker had a great deal on his mind.
At times, Secretary Baker’s attitude really bothered me. The dilemma is: What should he have done? He was moving ahead. The negotiations in which he was involved were leading to a peace conference, one way or another, which I could readily applaud. If it succeeded, it would give the Israelis a remarkable breakthrough in demolishing the longstanding Arab taboo against negotiating with the Israelis.
However, I was disturbed. Nevertheless, what should I have done? Should I have resigned, should I have quit, should I have withdrawn? I felt: “No.” My strong, private reservations notwithstanding, I should put my shoulder to the wheel and do everything that I could. So that’s the way I conducted myself.
There are many Americans who felt [that we had to give Israelis the benefit of the doubt because we weren’t anti-Semitic] and who expressed this in one form or another.
Going way back to the time when I spoke with Larry Eagleburger before he was actually nominated as Secretary of State and called on General [Brent] Scowcroft before he was taken on at the National Security Council, Larry’s remarks and my contacts with Scowcroft led me to realize that this was a new, or a new/old attitude, however you want to describe it.
To put it mildly, this attitude might be summarized as: “No more Mr. Nice Guy.” It ranged and was perceived by the successive Shamir cabinets as going much further than that. This was seen as coming from the White House and was not a creation of Secretary of State James Baker. From their various sources it didn’t take the Shamir cabinets long to figure out that they had a major problem with the President of the United States and his attitude toward them.
All of that was to sharpen as time went on. I recalled previously how President Bush in my presence and in his office called me in and really pounded the air. He was furious at what he considered a betrayal of assurances he felt he had received from Shamir.
Prime Minister Shamir had obviously put off President Bush with some such remark as: “The settlements need not be a problem.” However this comment was worded I don’t know. I wasn’t present at that conversation. Bush took it to mean one thing. Obviously, Shamir intended it to mean something else. President Bush was really furious as time went on, and the new facts on the ground as Sharon and others loved to call them, kept sprouting up, our protestations notwithstanding….
“These issues consumed hours and hours of time, with discussions, proposals, and counter-proposals”
I could talk for hours, giving the historical background and so forth. The main issues were: Would the Israelis agree to a Middle Eastern conference based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338? This meant land for peace. Would the Israelis agree to an international conference? For good reason the Israelis had a well-founded dislike, having been pilloried, over and over again, particularly at the UN General Assembly and in various specialized agencies of the United Nations, where the Arab countries would gang up on them and use their clout with the Third World, and so forth….
So the question was: Would the Israelis come to some kind of international conference and, if so, where would it be held? From the Israeli viewpoint they had always wanted the action to take place in and on their borders. That is, they wanted face to face negotiations on a bilateral, official basis with their neighbors. During all of those years, given the decisions made by the Arab League and the very strong anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli bias displayed by all of their neighbors, Israel had refused to agree with such negotiations.
The Arab countries carried these biases into the peacemaking process. The Arab viewpoint would be: If we’re going to have a conference, it should be an international meeting, held elsewhere than in the Middle East. Such a conference ought to be framed in such a way that the outcome is territory for peace. That is, Israel should vacate all of the lands, of any sort, that it has ever taken, if you want the fuller version of the Arab demands.
The Israelis were not about to accept that. The question then was: Would the Israelis allow Palestinian participation in such a meeting under constraints? That is to say, no PLO, because the U.S. itself was in a further bind on the PLO, because Arafat had behaved so badly during Desert Storm and was in the doghouse with many Arab countries. Would the Israelis accept a proper Palestinian delegation which was not controlled by the PLO, which did not include Palestinians from East Jerusalem at this stage, and so forth?
Examining these and other issues consumed hours and hours of time, with discussions, proposals, and counter-proposals being presented. Again, I reiterate, full marks should go to Secretary of State Baker for his patience, his tolerance, and his ability, as a dealmaker, to set things up where he would lay out all of these Israeli objections and then work to demonstrate all that he had done and was going to do to try and meet them. He said that he would keep trying, but he would need more from the Israelis. He was a wily dealmaker.
Baker would meet with the Palestinians, criticize them for PLO conduct during the Gulf War, and tell them, flat-out, that the Palestinian Delegation to the forthcoming conference wasn’t going to be controlled by the PLO.
At the same time he would say in effect, “If you play along with me, if you’ll go through the right motions and so forth, maybe we can get you more of what you want, if you know what I mean.”…
Baker would raise his voice and say to the Israelis: “Would you stop building settlements? Will you give me an ironclad guarantee that you will stop construction work on all settlements, including those in and around Jerusalem?” Of course, Prime Minister Shamir wasn’t about to make such a commitment.
As that issue sharpened, so did the U.S. language and Secretary Baker’s handling of this matter. That difference of view with Shamir’s Government was to last through the whole peace-building process and afterwards.
The settlements continue
[During the time that I was involved in this negotiation, we were going out and checking on construction at these settlements.] In fact, the primary reporting responsibility here lay with the Consulate General in Jerusalem. The Consulate General staff was assiduously reporting all of these developments…
Oh, there was a whole technique involved in settlement building. All sorts of things were happening. The standard technique, especially when the people behind all of these settlements realized that the U.S. was increasingly focused on them, would be for a small group of people to appear on a distant knob, some distance from an existing settlement.
They would set up some tents and bring in a caravan, a couple of trailers, and so forth. After a while, instead of three or four couples living there, there would be 10 or 15 couples and perhaps a couple of mobile homes. Then a road would be built, connecting with a nearby highway or settlement. When the U.S. protest came in, and we were using satellite and ground observation to learn what was happening, the dimensions of this problem grew.
Remember, when I first went to Israel in 1979, there were no more than several thousand Jewish settlers living on the West Bank. However, by this time we were talking about 100,000 Jewish residents on the West Bank. It was now beginning to take on some overtones such as, “Well, maybe some Russian Jews would like to go out there and live.”
After all, there were all of the incentives. They had a practically free mortgage for the housing, commuter bedroom facilities, good swimming pools, schools, high-tech employment on some of these sites themselves, and so forth.
So this was a big issue, and it got sharper and sharper as time went on. Indeed, this continued, even after the peace process began….
Another problem that reared its head was the establishment of the Missile Technology Control Regime. Already U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had had words in my presence with Arens as Israeli Defense Minister about the alleged leakage of U.S. technology through the Israeli industrial and military complex to other countries. There had been sharp words exchanged, with Arens himself taking part in them.
Arens resoundingly rejected these comments by Dick Cheney. As I indicated in previous remarks, it’s a terribly complicated issue, not just between the U.S. and Israel but the U.S. and countries X, Y, and Z, such as France or anybody else.
As a result of the Gulf War and the discovery of how far Saddam Hussein’s missile technology had advanced, apart from the junky SCUD missiles that were being fired at Israel and U.S. forces, we realized how close he had come to developing a nuclear missile delivery system.
This was coupled with the increasingly disturbing news on and about Iran and the flows of technology into Iran from North Korea and from Russian scientific personnel and establishments. The Bush Administration was advocating something called the Missile Technology Control Regime.
Under this program lists were drawn up of countries that had missiles and missile programs which had not conformed to our version of a control system which said, “Thou shalt not build something which can go more than 400-500 kilometers,” and so forth. (A description of the agreement can be found here.)
Well, since Israel hadn’t signed on to this control system, Israel began to appear on these lists. This caused the Israelis great heartburn at the prospect of yet another, open split with the United States. Secretary Baker could play with this issue.
On the one hand, he could say that this was a Department of Defense problem, and, on the other hand, he could say that it wasn’t. It was not merely the Department of Defense which was involved in this. It was the State Department Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) which handled the licensing. At this time Dick Clark was the relevant PM Assistant Secretary. Along with others, PM was putting out the preparatory guidelines which constituted a warning to the Israelis: “Hey, you either come to terms on this issue, or else….”
So issues like these were in the background of the negotiations which were under way. In the event, as time went on, Secretary Baker succeeded in successfully completing these negotiations. It was a grinding process….
“Secretary Baker would convey a studied anger and then say, “If that’s the way you feel, then there’s really no point in going any further”
My role in connection with these meetings [with Secretary Baker] was to keep in touch with Yosip Ben Aron and Eli Rubenstein. Dennis Ross and I would hammer against their arguments. The exchanges would often get quite sharp. Prime Minister Shamir would sit there and, after a certain amount of acrimony and so forth, would say something like: “Well, let’s move on,” or something like that.
Secretary Baker himself would occasionally lash out, and sometimes he did this quite deliberately. He would get sick and tired of what he considered Yosip Ben Aron’s and Eli Rubenstein‘s dilatory tactics.
Baker had his own, if you will, Texas dealmaker’s way of emphasizing a point. I found that this pattern of Baker’s was repeated later on in the context of a couple of other, really tense occasions. At the time we had no direct communications with Ambassador Ed Djerejian in Damascus. However, when I put things together later on and made comparative notes, I found that this pattern was not unique.
If frustrated enough or to drive home a point, Baker would snap together, very loudly, this folder he had with him, which had metallic edges, and Baker would then stand up. We were all seated in a tiny circle. Baker would step past a coffee table and go over and look at a map or wall exhibit of some kind. In Prime Minister Shamir’s office there were always displays of this kind.
He would convey a studied anger for a moment or two and then say, “If that’s the way you feel, then there’s really no point in going any further.” Raising his voice, he would say: “Now, I’ve tried and I’ve done everything that I could, Yossi and Eli. I’ve met this and that request, but you keep on harping away” and so forth. As I say, Baker would deliver himself of a bit of a diatribe against them.
There would be a period of silence, and Shamir would then say, “Well, let’s go on” or move the discussion onto a different tack.
On more than one occasion Secretary Baker would say to me, and I felt that this was entirely gratuitous, because I was taking notes, along with Dennis Ross and others: “No cables or telegrams reporting this discussion, Ambassador!” Of course, he didn’t need to say that. The Israelis were taking down every syllable that Baker was saying, and the Israelis were very good notetakers. Several times he would make a similar remark when I was present in discussions with the Palestinians….
He obviously wanted things to be compartmentalized. I suppose that he wanted to let it be known that what he said to me in private, in the Cadillac, would remain private….
Baker gradually put this negotiation together. There would be a great deal of acrimony and a great deal of sharpness, particularly on the loan guarantee and missile technology. There would be a lot of harsh words about the continued construction of Israeli settlements or settlement outposts in the occupied territories.
He took an increasingly critical attitude toward Israeli operations against growing attacks against Israel by Hezbollah and ultra-radical Palestinians up on the Lebanese front. Baker repeated the old call for moderation and restraint and expressed increasing criticism about Israeli Defense Minister Arens’ handling of Intifada incidents.
Arens was doing what he could, but Israelis were being killed, and curfews were in effect. Palestinian employment in Israel was cut way back because of the curfew and the closure of the border. These incidents on the border were by no means an Arens invention. The same practices were used before and later on by Yitzhak Rabin.
So there was a lot of acrimony in the air. However, ultimately, an agreement was put together. Then the Baker party requested that a couple of crack DCMs [Deputy Chiefs of Mission] be detailed to Madrid to help complete the preparations for and international conference in Madrid.
These included my DCM at the time, Mark Parris, an outstanding DCM [later our Ambassador to Turkey] and former specialist on the Soviet Union. I’d recruited him for the post of DCM in Tel Aviv at the suggestion of Charley Hill, and it was an excellent choice. By now Mark had such a reputation that Margaret Tutwiler and company lifted him out of Tel Aviv to prepare the choreography for the Madrid Conference.
“Your Ambassador to Jordan has been seriously injured in one of your Embassy automobiles”
Well, the great moment arrived, and at a critical juncture just before the Madrid Conference, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who had been having his running battles within the Likud and with Prime Minister Shamir, was angered to find that Shamir had decided to lead the Israeli Delegation to the conference himself.
In a snit, David Levy boycotted it, which was okay from Shamir’s viewpoint. So Shamir led the Israeli Delegation.
I went out to take an El Al flight to Madrid. As I was just leaving my office, my secretary said there was an emergency call from the Director General of Hadassah Hospital. I took the call.
He said, “Your Ambassador to Amman, Jordan, has just been very seriously injured in one of your Embassy automobiles on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. Since there are no communications allowed by the Jordanians between Israel and Jordan, and we can’t communicate with his wife or family, I need your authority to operate on the Ambassador immediately. Otherwise, he will die.”
So I said, “Go ahead.”
With that, I ran downstairs with my mobile phone, raced out to Ben Gurion International Airport, and, from the side of the plane, called the Director General of Hadassah Hospital. He said that it was touch and go but the Ambassador would survive.
What had happened was that, by arrangement, he had come from Amman to the Allenby Bridge. My driver, Yosi met him in an armored Cadillac from Embassy Tel Aviv, took him from Allenby Bridge to the highway going up to Jerusalem which climbs very precipitously.
As my driver was wending his way down, a recently arrived Russian immigrant lady, on her first and last trip as an Israeli driver, veered out and hit the Embassy Cadillac, head on. She was killed instantly, and her husband lost his legs.
The American Ambassador to Jordan, who was in the traditional ambassadorial position in the right rear seat, had a waist seatbelt. The seat belt saved his life but almost killed him because in the collision the belt dug into his intestines. My driver and the female Security Officer riding with him were badly injured in the accident.