The morgues of newspapers are filled with reports on plans which successive American administrations had hoped would produce peace between Israel and its neighbors: the Rogers Plan, the Vance Plan, the Shultz Plan, and a number of equally futile European initiatives as well. With Secretary of State James Baker’s speech to AIPAC of May 22, 1989, the Bush administration joined this melancholy company.

Today, several months later, Secretary Baker’s speech is still the only general statement of Middle East policy the Bush administration has made since taking office. The President himself has endorsed it a number of times. And it certainly seems to explain what the administration is trying to achieve in its talks with the PLO, Israel, and the Arab states, as well as in the actions it has taken with respect to Middle East issues.

In that speech, Secretary Baker said that the overriding goal of American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict is “a comprehensive settlement achieved through negotiations based on United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.” In advancing that proposition, Baker faithfully repeats what has been the major bipartisan premise of American policy in the region since 1967. Yet the speech itself contains a number of statements fundamentally inconsistent with those resolutions.1

For example, Baker declares that

in advance of direct negotiations, the United States and no other party, inside or outside, can or will dictate an outcome. That is why the United States does not support annexation or permanent Israeli control of the West Bank or Gaza, nor do we support the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

I would add here that we do have an idea about the reasonable middle ground to which a settlement should be directed. That is, self-government for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza in a manner acceptable to Palestinians, Israel, and Jordan. Such a formula provides ample scope for Palestinians to achieve their full political rights. It also provides ample protection for Israel’s security as well.

Baker goes on to observe:

For many Israelis, it will not be easy to enter a negotiating process whose successful outcome will in all probability involve territorial withdrawal and the emergence of a new political reality.

He then sums up as follows:

For Israel, now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel. Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza—security and otherwise—can be accommodated in a settlement based on Resolution 242. Forswear annexation. Stop settlement activity. Allow schools to reopen. Reach out to Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights.

When Baker says that the United States opposes Israeli annexation or permanent control in the West Bank (and equally opposes a third Palestinian state in the area), is he talking only of the period before the final peace negotiations or about the ultimate peace settlement itself? Despite the confusion of the Secretary’s language here, his speech has been generally interpreted as an announcement that in the long run the United States regards the entire West Bank as off-limits to Israel and favors the emergence of a form of Palestinian Arab self-government in the area which would constitute a new political reality, if not quite another independent Palestinian state. The distinction on which his opposition to a third Palestinian state depends, however, is fragile, to say the least.



If this reading of Baker’s text is correct, his position is flatly contrary to the territorial provisions of Resolution 242. That resolution was drafted with the thorny problems of the West Bank in everybody’s mind. It was assumed at the time that Israel and Jordan would divide the territory between them, agree on security arrangements, an economic union, and a form of political cooperation as well, and then each country would annex the parts of the West Bank assigned to it by their agreement.

Thus, if Baker’s text means what it seems to say, it declares a startling new proposition—namely, that Resolution 242 requires Israel to withdraw to the armistice demarcation lines as they stood in 1967, leaving its security to be protected by demilitarized zones and other special devices within an Arab West Bank state.

The assumption behind Baker’s position must be that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip “belong” in some sense to Jordan, to the Arabs who now live there, or to an inchoate state of “Palestine.” None of these is the case. Legally, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are unallocated parts of the Palestine Mandate. So far as Jordan’s claim is concerned, the world community and especially the other Arab states refused to recognize its attempt to annex the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem in 1951. And so far as the claim of the Arabs who live there goes, it must be remembered that, in contrast to other League of Nations Mandates, the Palestine Mandate was not established as a trust for the indigenous population of the area, to be terminated when that population was ready for self-government. It was set up under a different article of the League Covenant as a trust for the Jewish people, in recognition of their historic connection with the land, on condition that the civic and religious rights of the Muslims and Christians living in the territory be respected.

Moreover, the right of the Jewish people to settle in the West Bank under the Mandate has never been terminated. The Jewish right of settlement was suspended by the British in 1921 only for the East Bank—that is, for what was then the Transjordanian province of the Palestine Mandate, and is now Jordan. Jewish settlement in the West Bank is therefore not an intrusion into alien territory held as a result of war, nor (as the State Department used to contend) a violation of the Geneva Convention. It is, rather, the exercise of a right protected by Article 80 of the United Nations Charter and hence necessarily part of the domestic law applicable in the West Bank.

For some years, the United States government has objected to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, occasionally on legal grounds but more recently only for political reasons. Often with asperity, American spokesmen charge that Jewish settlements obstruct the peace process. It is impossible to discover a basis for this view, since there were no Israeli settlements in the area during the period of Jordanian military occupation, and no peace either. On the contrary, many believe the process of “creeping Israeli annexation” of the West Bank has helped to persuade some Arab leaders that peace is necessary.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has also been much criticized in the United States for claiming the whole of the West Bank for Israel. Contemplating the possibility of a negotiation between Israel and Arabs who regard it as a concession to claim only the entire West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem as a precondition for talks, it would be astonishing if Shamir took a different opening position. But he has said over and over again, most formally in an article in Foreign Affairs in 1988, that after a five-year period of peaceful coexistence between Israel and the autonomous Arab entity he advocates for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the peacemaking process would necessarily face the “difficult issue of sovereignty.” Shamir’s position is fully compatible with Resolution 242, which leaves it to the parties to agree on “secure and recognized boundaries.”

Finally, the idea of a third Palestinian state for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was carefully considered when Resolution 242 was being drafted, and then rejected. Such a state, it was thought, would be a source of instability in the region, a threat to Israel, and a serious blow to King Hussein, a close associate both of Great Britain and of the United States. Those considerations remain persuasive today.

Baker’s speech has an additional and quite different denotation in the Middle East. When the Secretary of State used the phrase “Greater Israel,” he probably intended only an Israel that would include the territories captured in the Six-Day War and especially the West Bank. But as a noted student of the Middle East, Daniel Pipes of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has pointed out,2 “in the Arab world and many of the Muslim countries, [this phrase] means something much grander: not Israeli retention of the West Bank, but Israeli conquest of a huge area stretching from Egypt to Iran.” For example, Yasir Arafat often says that the two blue lines on the Israeli flag represent the Nile and Euphrates rivers, “and in between is Israel,” while the Syrian prime minister declares that the dream of a “Greater Israel” not only includes the whole of Palestine but Turkey, Iran, and Africa as well. Thus, writes Pipes, “The American Secretary of State’s call on Israelis to lay aside ‘the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel’ had two main effects. It provided authoritative confirmation of a deeply-held and cherished fantasy; worse, in a strange way, it made the U.S. government a party to the political hallucinations of others.”



Baker’s comments on Shamir’s proposal for an election to select Arab interlocutors for the first round of negotiations with Israel raise equally basic questions under Resolution 242. Baker agrees with Israel that the time is not ripe for the immediate negotiation of a final settlement, and urges consultation on standards for a workable election process as a step toward an interim solution. “Such elections,” Baker writes,

should be free and fair, and free of interference from any quarter. Through open access to media and outside observers, the integrity of the electoral process can be affirmed. And participation in the elections should be as open as possible.

These unexceptionable words scarcely hint at the real issues involved. The PLO has taken the position, which the Arab summit in Morocco of May 1989 has supported, that Israeli military forces should withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip before elections are held and that the elections should be conducted by outside governments or by the United Nations. They are urging as well that a vote be given to the Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem and to Palestinian Arabs living in Jordan and other countries of the world. These are naked attempts to drown out the voice of the Arab residents of the occupied territories, to annul the Israeli annexation of the Old City of Jerusalem, to establish a right of return for all Palestinians living abroad, and thus to destroy the possibility of a peaceful settlement altogether. What is the American position on these explosive issues? We are left with the Delphic sentence that “participation in the elections should be as open as possible.” The Secretary of State has a well-known propensity for “splitting the difference.” But these are matters of life and death for Israel on which no compromise is possible.

Baker urges Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank not to “shy away from a dialogue with Israel that can transform the current environment.” What does it mean when a man as sophisticated and worldly as Baker makes such a statement without mentioning the fact that Arabs who take such steps are being murdered as “collaborators,” a policy openly defended by PLO leaders like Professor Edward Said of Columbia?3 The United States is conducting exploratory talks with the PLO. Can the American government tolerate the murder of those who follow the advice of its Secretary of State and still accept the PLO as a peacemaker? Can it acquiesce in the PLO’s claim of a right to wage war against Israel reiterated as recently as August 11 in the face not only of Resolution 242 but of earlier binding Security Council decisions that no party to the Arab-Israeli dispute can claim belligerent rights?

There is another omission in Baker’s treatment of the elections which raises grave questions under Resolution 242. Baker does not point out that Israel is vested by Resolution 242 with the authority to administer the occupied territories until the Arab states of the region make a just and lasting peace. Israel may consult with others about the modalities of the elections, but holding the elections is its sole responsibility as the only legitimate governmental authority in the area.

This feature of Resolution 242 is not an arid legalism. It is the response of the Security Council to the fact that after the Suez war of 1956 Israel withdrew from the Sinai in reliance on Nasser’s promises to stop guerrilla attacks from Egyptian territory; to open the Suez Canal and the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping; and to make peace. The last of those promises was broken when Nasser closed the Strait of Tiran, and thus started the Six-Day War.

After all that has happened since Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1957 without peace, it would be suicidal for the Israelis to remove one soldier from the occupied territories until the conditions of Resolution 242 are met, and foolhardy to share the responsibility for the election with any other country or institution.



Two other features of Baker’s speech should be mentioned—his equivocal treatment of the issue of an international conference, and the passages in which he addresses the Soviets.

On the much mooted issue of a conference, Baker says that

for negotiations to succeed, they must allow the parties to deal directly with each other, face to face. A properly structured international conference could be useful at an appropriate time, but only if it did not interfere with or in any way replace or be a substitute for the direct talks. [Emphasis in original]

No experienced person can suppose for a moment that the delegates, and especially the Soviet delegates, to an international conference on one of the most bitterly contested issues in world politics would sit by supinely and allow the parties to negotiate by themselves in the corridors.

As to the Soviets, Baker’s speech contains two paragraphs devoted to them. The first reports that when he had been in Moscow a few days earlier, he was told that Soviet policy was changing, that the emigration laws were being reconsidered, and that the restrictions on Jewish worship and communal life were being loosened. He was told as well that Shamir’s election plan was “worthy of study.” These, Baker avers, “are all positive signs.” But the Soviets must go farther, he adds, to convince us “that they are serious about new thinking in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Let Moscow restore diplomatic ties with Israel, for example, promote a serious peace process, not just empty slogans,” and behave responsibly about selling sophisticated arms to countries like Libya. It goes without saying that none of the steps Baker mentioned has been taken.

Nor is there any evidence as yet that the Soviet Union has given up its longstanding policy of seeking to gain control of the Middle East and the North African littoral. It has a major new naval base in Syria and continues to supply that country with arms on a large scale; it has entered into a sweeping alliance with Iran; and it has strengthened its already close ties with Libya.

The intifada is, of course, the driving force behind the urgency of Baker’s speech. He agrees with Shamir, he tells us, that the status quo is unacceptable. Its continuance, he adds, would mean increasing violence and worsening prospects for peace. And he appeals to the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to translate “the dialogue of violence in the intifada into a dialogue of politics and diplomacy.” The speech has no word of criticism for those who are directing the rioting or participating in it, although it is an armed attack against Israel. The Arabs of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have a genuine grievance, but it is not a grievance against Israel. Not surprisingly, they object to living under alien military occupation, which has now lasted for more than twenty years. Most of them are Jordanian citizens and carry Jordanian passports, but Jordan will not allow them to resettle in Jordan, as many reportedly wish to do. And for the entire period of the Israeli occupation the Arab governments supposed to represent the Arabs of the West Bank in world politics have refused to make peace with Israel, and thereby bring the occupation to an end. The West Bank Arabs and the Arab residents of the Gaza Strip have been treated as pawns in the Arab war against Israel, while the PLO and other Arab voices have preached the gospel of destroying Israel altogether. The leaders of the Arab states have clung to those sterile positions both out of principle and out of fear. Terrorists of several persuasions have demonstrated that moderate Arab leaders risk their own lives and those of their families if they show the slightest sign of being willing to carry out the prescriptions of Resolutions 242 and 338.



Resolutions 242 and 338 are not icons, but they provide the only possible basis for peace for two simple reasons. They are the only guidelines for peace at least nominally agreed to by all the parties concerned, and they squarely confront the only cause of the prolonged conflict in the Levant: the steadfast refusal of the Arab states, except for Egypt after 1977, to make peace with Israel. This is an uncomfortable fact that the Western nations prefer to ignore whenever they can. Baker’s speech follows that timid practice. One hopes this does not mean that the Bush administration is seriously attempting to abandon 242. No foreseeable majority in the Israeli Knesset or cabinet could accept such a betrayal, and no American government concerned with the protection of American interests in the Middle East should consider it.

Like so many of his predecessors who have plunged into this intractable issue, then, Baker has made a false start. But there is still time for him to learn what most of them discovered in their turn—that the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be “solved” by verbal dexterity and a few gestures of sympathy for both sides, that (like the status of Northern Ireland, or the fate of the Basques in Spain or of the Kurds throughout the Middle East) it is one of those problems that have to be lived with, at least until the Arab states decide to abide by Resolutions 242 and 338 and do what all of them except Egypt have thus far adamantly refused to do: call off the war they have been waging against Israel for over forty years and finally make peace with the Jewish state.



1 The essence of Resolution 242, adopted after the Six-Day War of 1967, is that Israel remain in control of the territories it occupied in 1967 until “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” It decrees that peace should be achieved by agreement among the states in the area providing for the withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from some but not all of the occupied territories to “secure and recognized boundaries.” Resolution 338, voted after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, makes 242 mandatory, and orders the parties to make peace “immediately” through direct negotiations pursuant to its terms.

2 Washington Jewish Week, July 6, 1989.

3 See “Professor of Terror” by Edward Alexander in the August 1989 COMMENTARY.

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