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Salvaging the Peace Process Before It Takes Road of No Return

James A. Baker III served as secretary of state from 1989-1992. He is the author of "The Politics of Diplomacy" (Putnam)

Today, hopes for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East are as low as they have been since before the Persian Gulf War. The peace process, born in Madrid in 1991, stands at a critical crossroads. It can move forward--or it can retrogress. Historically, we have seen there is no neutral gear in the Middle East: Either there is hope for peace or progress toward peace, or there will be violence on the ground. Sadly, it has been ever thus.

The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations today are in serious straits--not only with regard to current negotiating points like Hebron but also with the further implementation of the Oslo I and II accords. On the Syrian-Lebanese track, there is, quite simply, no prospect for progress. To move forward on all these fronts will require greater commitment on all sides than we’ve seen--including greater commitment by the United States.

On the ground, hopes for peace would benefit from the implementation of economic measures from Oslo I and II that would alleviate the dismal standard of living in Gaza and the West Bank. Since the 1993 accords, Palestinians have seen their per-capita income fall as Israel’s has climbed, leaving the average Palestinian with one-sixth the annual income of the average Israeli. The unemployment rate is 45% in Gaza and 35% in the West Bank, compared with 7% in Israel. Moreover, with new Israeli security measures, the number of Palestinians working in Israel has dropped from 53,000 to 18,000. It is a Catch-22: Economic growth for Palestinians depends on peace, but peace may depend on economic growth for Palestinians.

But, of course, there are political as well as economic barriers to peace. Further implementation of the agreements calls for final-status talks. With the deadline for completion set for 1999, these talks must begin soon if they are to reach that goal. Final-status talks are fraught with challenges--from settlements to refugees to Jerusalem to the legal status of Palestinian territory. So it’s extremely important for the two sides to move beyond today’s crises, to focus on substance and not symbols. But that’s hard to do where there is no trust by one side of the other.

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The opening of the tunnel paralleling Temple Mount was simply a match that lit the tinder. The tinder accumulated in response to actions of the then-new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With little experience at the highest level of government, he failed to moderate his campaign rhetoric quickly enough after becoming prime minister. He refused even to meet with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat for more than 100 days. Netanyahu adopted a more aggressive policy of creating facts on the ground by new settlement activity. And he walked away from commitments made by the previous Israeli government--particularly concerning redeployment of Israeli troops from Hebron.

Israel’s government was, of course, the subject of a flood of criticism both at home and abroad. Netanyahu was widely seen as having badly miscalculated. Palestinians held the political and public-relations high ground.

But then Palestinian security forces used weapons they’d acquired from Israel to kill Israeli soldiers. This is something Arafat should never have let happen--if he was truly in control of the situation. And if he wasn’t in control, he ought to have been; and he should quickly forge institutions of control so that this can never happen again. The result of this tragedy was that domestic Israeli protest of the policies of the new Likud government was silenced, and international disaffection with these policies was diminished as well.

We know, of course, that the Netanyahu government was elected on a platform of security. But there can be no real long-term security for Israel without peace. At some point, Netanyahu will have to decide how he wants to be judged by history. Does he want to be remembered as the prime minister of Israel who brought a secure peace with all her neighbors--who ended her status as a nation perpetually at war--or does he want to be remembered as the prime minister on whose watch the peace process was allowed to die?

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I hope, and believe, it will be the former. But we have not seen actions indicating such resolve. It is not enough to “talk the talk” of peace. You have to “walk the walk,” as well. Rhetoric will usually suffice in politics--but not in statecraft--where actions speak louder than words.

Only the United States, with its unique relationship with Israel and its special role in world affairs, can serve as an honest broker between Israelis and Arabs; and only the United States can get the peace process back on track.

Now that the U.S. presidential election is over, it is essential that the United States assume a stronger leadership role to accomplish this. But to do so, the United States must maintain the integrity of its position by acting in a manner that is objective and strong. From time to time, this will include the telling of truths upsetting to one or more of the various parties.

To put it gently, this is not a task that has come naturally to the Clinton administration. For example, on the Sunday after the Israeli election, the secretary of state signaled that the United States would adapt its well-known and long-held position that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are an obstacle to peace. And the president’s national-security advisor has referred to them merely as a “complicating factor.”

Washington’s policy on settlements should not be changed, it should be maintained as is. Settlements are an obstacle to peace. Period. This should be frequently articulated and assertively pursued. The U.S. position on settlements has been a long-standing policy under Democratic and Republican administrations, and should not be sacrificed to political expediency. Only within the past few days have we heard official U.S. voices in opposition to increased settlement activity. President Bill Clinton should be commended for demonstrating some real courage by speaking out. But, to promote peace, this must be a sustained effort.

The United States cannot shrink from its historic role. When we act as an honest broker in the Middle East, the prospects for peace are enhanced. This is the role President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger played in the Disengagement Agreements of 1973; that President Jimmy Carter and Secretary Cyrus R. Vance played in the Camp David Accords in 1979, and that President George Bush and I played in Madrid in 1991.

In some ways, the reluctance of the Clinton administration to accept this role is unsurprising. The Clinton administration has had a fairly easy ride on the Middle East thus far, benefiting from “heavy lifting” by others--including Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, King Hussein of Jordan and the Norwegian interlocutors who facilitated the Oslo accords.

But with Israel’s change in government, all that is past. There will be no further progress now without some heavy lifting by the United States itself.

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It is not only Netanyahu who has an opportunity to be remembered by history as a peacemaker. Clinton has that chance as well.*


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