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Walker's World: Baker's Middle East return

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus

WASHINGTON, Nov. 13 (UPI) -- The proposal Sunday by the Arab League for a new international conference to restart the Middle East peace process comes at a useful time, because suddenly an awful lot of people are starting to row in the same direction.

On Tuesday, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair gives his views by video link to the Washington-based Iraq Study Group (ISG), the team of America's wise men on whom great hopes rest. And Blair has consistently argued that progress in Iraq, and in the Arab world more generally, will require a full-scale effort to address the problem of Israel-Palestine.

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The signs are that the ISG takes the same view. Led by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and Lee Hamilton, the former chairman of the House Committee on International Relations and a Democrat, this bipartisan team of national elder statesmen is supposed to devise some form of improvement for America's troubled strategy in Iraq.

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They play their cards close to their chest, and it is not clear whether they are trying to plot a decent exit strategy, a smart new course for winning at least some of the Bush administration's original goals in the war, or simply to break the U.S. policy argument away from the artificial choice between "staying the course" and "cut and run."

But we know enough about the long-standing views of Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, and enough has leaked out from the various consultants and aides associated with the project, that some tentative conclusions about their report, due next month, can be reached.

The first is that they will present options, rather than any clear plan, and explain the merits and costs associated with each course.

The second is that they will stress that the stakes in Iraq are far higher than the fate of the Bush administration or whether Iraq plunges into all-out civil war. President George W. Bush has said that not just American prestige and security, but Western civilization as a whole is at stake in the War on Terror.

The third is that these high stakes also involve Iraq's neighbors in the region, who must somehow be brought into the process if Iraq is to be stabilized. This may well mean sitting down to negotiate with unsavory regimes like Syria and Iran, and accepting that they too have regional interests that will have to be dealt with. This will certainly complicate the efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions, but at least it may provide a large forum in which Iran's neighbors can bring the weight of their own concerns to bear. It may even make it clear to Iran that a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East could well follow.

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The fourth is that the wise men will make clear, as they have done before in different contexts, their conviction that Israel-Palestine is the key to the stabilization of the Middle East. It is the running sore, the constant focus of Arab anger and resentment, the blood opera of Arab TV screens, as central to modern Arab political culture as the Trojan Wars to ancient Greece, and rather longer lasting.

The Soviet occupation of the Muslims of Afghanistan, and the bombardment of the Muslims of Bosnia, and the slaughter of the Muslims of Chechnya have each in their turn added fuel to the bright flame of Islamic resentment, but the issue of Israel and Palestine has both predated and outlasted each of these. And perhaps at last there is some slight prospect of progress.

In March 2003, as the Anglo-American armies were poised to invade Iraq, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (and now the King) stunned the Arab League conference in Beirut by proposing a settlement in which the Arabs would recognize and sign formal peace treaties with Israel, in return for Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state. This was the same time that Iran made a similar, secret offer to the Bush administration through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.

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Flushed with the prospect of military triumph, the Bush administration ignored these unprecedented proposals.

So did Israel. There are obvious flaws in the Saudi proposal that ignore the reality of the massive Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the special problem of Jerusalem and the vexed issue of Palestinian refugees and their claim of a right to return. But these hurdles are not insuperable; they were largely cleared at the Camp David and Taba talks of 1999 and 2000, and in the subsequent Geneva Accords.

The intriguing new factor is the return to this kind of diplomacy of Jim Baker, who helped to convene the1991 Madrid conference which launched what became the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. Madrid also started the Israeli-Palestinian contacts that led to the secret Oslo talks, which led in turn to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn.

One key factor in that diplomacy was Baker's readiness to be seen to get tough with Israel. While testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1990 on the withholding of U.S. financial support for Israel, he said he had not been in touch with the Israelis, but if they wanted to make contact they could always telephone -- and mockingly recited the number of the State Department switchboard. At a subsequent White House meeting when another official asked about the implications for the Jewish vote, Baker famously replied: "F--k the Jews; they didn't vote for us anyway."

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Baker is now chairing the group of wise men whose recommendations over Iraq are now so eagerly awaited in the White House and in the new Congress, where the newly-elected Democratic majority that owed so much to the Iraq imbroglio has no consensus on what to do about the war. Any policy that has the Baker-Hamilton bipartisan seal of approval is likely to get a lot of support.

The situation on the ground in the West Bank is dire and even worse in Gaza. Rockets still rain on Israel, and Israeli retaliation is routinely killing Palestinians. Like the democrats, the Israelis have no policy.

Maybe, just maybe, with the Abdullah Plan and the Arab League, with Tony Blair and the wise men, with a new U.S. Congress and a chastened president desperate for some way out of the Iraqi briar patch, maybe there is some prospect of a breakthrough that embraces Israel and Palestine and Iraq too. And even the faintest hope of such a development is quite an improvement on the way things looked last month.

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