Secretary of State James Baker 3d's May 22 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee appeared to be, and was greeted by some of his audience and some Arabs as, a substantial departure for U.S. Middle East policy. He was explicit about ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; he told Israelis and Palestinians to give up ideas about Greater Israel and the whole of Palestine, respectively; he reiterated the principle of exchanging land for peace, stressed confidence-building measures, noted an emerging political reality for Palestinians. Yet what he said was not really new and, in fact, given its underlying adherence to the Shamir "peace plan," was outright rejectionist. Like Yitzhak Shamir, he opposed the creation of an "independent" Palestinian state and did not refer to the significant developments in the Palestinian political position since the intifada began the resolutions of the Palestine National Council, the recognition of Israel, the reaffirmation of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, the two-state solution, the proposal for a comprehensive settlement through an international conference). Without an admonishing word about a "peace plan" that rejects any possibility of negotiation with the P.L.O. or any real change in the military occupation itself, he repeated formulas about U.S. and Israeli love for "democracy" which took the discourse back several decades.
Most specifically, Baker stressed the importance of the Israeli proposal for elections without addressing the central problems of that proposal. Thus what was novel about the speech turned out to be either a matter of "tone" (he didn't prostrate himself before the Israel lobby, and appeared to speak more plenty than other U.S. politicians have in the recent past) or a matter of somewhat refined subterfuge, i.e., endorsing elections in the West Bank and Gaza as a way of bypassing the P.L.O., of splitting the Palestinian community, of entirely defusing the movement toward self-determination. The rest was a restatement of U.S. policy since 1967, repeated countless times as Israel has been acting unilaterally since 1967 to make it appropriations of Palestinian land irreversible. Without holding Israel to a timetable for elections, without specifying concretely what conditions has to obtain for them to be useful and free, without allowing that Palestinians would be justifiably apprehensive about elections for "self-government" held under a more and more brutal Israeli occuption, Baker's speech advanced the already extensive complicity between the United Stated and Israel a good deal further,thereby sanctioning more, rather than less, Palestinian suffering.
Consider that since his return from the United States in April, Prime Minister Shamir has seemed to view his visit as licensing an escalation of measures against the intifada. He and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin have said repeatedly that with this unspecified brand of "elections," the Palestinians have been given an alternative to the intifada; unless they comply unconditionally, Israeli attacks on Palestinian national life in all its aspects will increase. And, indeed, the Nahhalin massacre took place right after Shamir returned. All of Gaza was placed under curfew until just recently. Israel has kept all Palestinian schools and universities closed, denying education to an entire generation of young people. The number killed during the uprising in April was thirty-eight, almost twice as many as in the previous month. Mosques have either been attacked (Hebron) or closed to worshipers during Ramadan (al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem).
Whatever might give substance to the election proposal - the participation of East Jerusalem residents, freedom of speech and organization, release of political prisoners, participation of international observers - is relegated to the status of "details," which might be discussed later. When Palestinians respond, as Bassam Abu Sharif did …