One of the most critical elements in a lasting Middle East peace will be a change of government in Israel, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III said last week.
Baker, who served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, made the rather startling observation about the need to change the government under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Thursday, as he was being honored in Washington, D.C., at the annual Freedom Dinner of the International Republican Institute (IRI).
After accepting IRI’s Freedom Award before an overflow crowd at the Capital Hilton Hotel, Baker then held an exchange on foreign policy with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Tom Friedman. Asked by Friedman whether he still believed in a two-state solution (that is, Arab recognition of Israel and Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state), Baker replied without hesitation: “There is no other solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no other way than land for peace.”
Then the man who also served as White House chief of staff and secretary of the treasury under Ronald Reagan offered three points of his own that he felt were critical to a Middle East peace.
“First, there has to be recognition that this is an election year [in the U.S.], and that nothing will be done for sure,” said Baker, adding, “We need to get past the election” for diplomatic developments on the Middle East front. His second point was that the U.S. and the world need to be negotiating with a united Palestinian directorate rather than the current situation in which part of the directorate (Gaza Strip) is controlled by the militant Hamas faction and the other part (West Bank) is governed by the more moderate Fatah faction (the political heirs to the late Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat).
Baker then called for “a government in Israel that wants to go forward for peace”—a not-so-subtle suggestion that Netanyahu’s Likud (right-of-center) government does not want to do this. Underscoring this point, Baker said that the new government should be led by someone “like [the late Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin,” who believed in the land-for-peace concept. Rabin, leader of the center-left Labor Party and a political archenemy of Netanyahu, was assassinated in 1995.
Although Baker has not held any major office in 20 years, he has long been considered a leading member of the foreign policy “establishment” in the U.S. Coming days after President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were caught on unguarded microphones making disparaging remarks about Netanyahu’s honesty, Baker’s call for a new government in Israel run by a leader “like Rabin” only underscores the view that “establishment” leaders prefer to deal with someone other than the conservative Netanyahu in Israel.
Addressing other topics on the foreign policy front, Baker recalled his early doubts while treasury secretary that the euro currency would work among 24 different European countries, and his feeling that the Arab spring uprisings in the Middle East seemed “not good for Israel in the short term.” He also said that we should “hope and pray for Egypt” to get a stable government, he does not believe predictions China will “own the 21st century,” and that the U.S. could still be the major world power “provided we get ride of that debt bomb.” He expressed his belief that the U.S. should take a tough line with Iran because “although the ayatollahs may be flaky and crazy, they do have an instinct for self-preservation.”
Asked by Friedman what he thought of fellow Texan Rick Perry’s presidential bid, Baker brought down the house by saying: “Hey, I thought we were here to discuss foreign policy!”