Looking Back: Tracking the Progress of the Middle East Peace

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AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES A. BAKER, III

James A. Baker, III, is a partner in the Houston law firm of Baker & Botts, and former US Secretary of State, White House Chief of Staff, and Secretary of the Treasury.

James A. Baker, III, has served in senior government positions under three US Presidents. He was the nation's 61st Secretary of State from January 1989 to August 1992 under President George Bush. Mr. Baker also served as the Secretary of the Treasury from 1985 to 1988 under President Ronald Reagan. From 1981 to 1985, he served as White House Chief of Staff to Reagan, a position he also held under Bush from August 1992 to January 1993. Today, he is a senior partner in the Houston law firm of Baker & Botts. On March 17, 1997, Baker was named by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as his Personal Envoy to make a fresh assessment of the situation in Western Sahara. Editor-in-Chief David Sachs spoke with Secretary Baker in April 1997 about Middle East peace.

Harvard International Review: Is peace in the Middle East inevitable?

Baker: Ultimately the dynamics in favor of peace are such that it will happen. Nobody can tell you today exactly when that might be, but if you look back to September of 1991, when we were concerned with simply breaking the old taboo that the parties would not talk face to face, and you look at the progress that has been made since that time, I think you would agree that it is rather remarkable that Israel is at peace with Jordan, that the parties talk now not only in a bilateral forum, but in a multilateral forum, and that there is a process ongoing between Israel and the Palestinians.

So I think that the peace process has a dynamic that will result ultimately in a comprehensive peace in this area of the world that so deserves it and has so long been denied it.

Can you speculate at all on what type of time-frame we might be looking at? Will it take decades to reach an agreement or decades to reach an eventual peace as the agreement is implemented? How long do you expect it to take before we have either the agreement or respect for peace on both sides?

Well, as I said, I don't think anybody can give you the exact time-frame. I do not think anybody would have guessed back in 1991 that we would be as far along as we are today. Clearly I think that progress on the Palestinian track is going to come more quickly than progress on the Syrian-Lebanese track. But I don't think anybody can give you an exact time-frame, and anybody who tried would simply be guessing.

You mentioned at the beginning of your first remark that the face-to-face taboo was a significant obstacle that had to be overcome. What other sorts of significant obstacles exist? What are other factors that could potentially derail the process?

The one thing that is operating now and threatening to derail the peace process is that there is a very clear lack of trust on both sides. When you had the Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin dealing with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an organization that until then had been considered a terrorist organization, you had developed a certain level of trust and confidence that permitted some rather remarkable progress.

That is all now being shattered and destroyed by actions on both sides. The truth of the matter is that we can't abide either the bomb or the bulldozer if we are going to move forward to a comprehensive peace settlement. There is, of course, no excuse for terrorist action, just as there is no excuse for creating facts on the ground through the settlement of land which is supposed to be the subject of a negotiation.

What sort of constraints can or should the international community impose on Israel on that regard? Israel obviously maintains that the disputed areas are part of its territory, and it therefore has the right to build housing or to destroy housing as it chooses. …