The new Baker initiative

Former Sec. of State James Baker has been helping to roll out a new report, issued by the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas, that urges the Obama administration to put forward its own proposal for the final-status boundaries between Israel and Palestine.
The whole report is available in PDF form here. It is interesting because it is the result of a quiet, “Track 2” diplomatic effort convened by the institute over the past year and a half, in which un-named Israeli and Palestinian participants worked together to present and discuss their own proposals for where the final boundary between the two states should lie, if indeed there are to be two states.
In Haaretz yesterday, Akiva Eldar referred to a recent interview with the National Journal in which Baker– who of course is most famous in the Middle East for the hard-nosed way he dealt with Likud PM Yitzhak Shamir over the settlements issue back in 1991-92– displayed that he is still prepared to play hardball with the present Likud PM.
Eldar quoted him as saying there:

    “I would also stress that United States taxpayers are giving Israel roughly $3 billion each year, which amounts to something like $1,000 for every Israeli citizen, at a time when our own economy is in bad shape and a lot of Americans would appreciate that kind of helping hand from their own government. Given that fact, it is not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements.”

Eldar also reported on a phone interview he conducted with Ed Djerejian, who’s the founding director of the Baker Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Syria, and Russia.
Djerejian told Eldar,

    “The Arab-Israeli conflict, and especially the Palestinian issue, remains one of the most contentious and sensitive issues in the entire Muslim world. Osama bin Laden exploits the plight of the Palestinians, as does [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad … This has a direct influence on the United States, which is expending its blood and treasure fighting insurgencies in overwhelmingly Muslim Iraq and Afghanistan.
    “We would be naive to think that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will eliminate the problems of terrorism and radicalization in the Islamic world, but it will go a long way toward draining the swamp of issues that extremists exploit for their own ends.”

All excellent analysis. And a very important argument that we should all keep on making…
I was intrigued, however, to read as much as I could of the report itself in order to:

    a) Figure out as well as I could at what “level” the Palestinian and Israeli participants were operating, and crucially, How close are they to actually being able to represent the positions of their respective national leaderships?
    b) Learn the content of the “U.S. compromise proposal”– actually, three different options for a “compromise proposal– that the Baker Institute people were urging.

On the first of those points, there seemed to be no evidence in the report as to who these people. I believe, based on other evidence, that Yasser Abed Rabboo, who was Abu Mazen’s long-time designated lead person in the “Geneva Initiative” process was one of the participants on the Palestinian side, which would make that team fairly authoritative vis-a-vis the Ramallah leadership.
But who were the Israelis? I don’t know. But whoever they were, on p.5 it makes clear that they were operating on the basis of “reported positions put forward by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert”– which indicates they were people far closer to Olmert’s Kadima Party than to Netanyahu’s Likud.
Which is interesting and very significant.
The initial map those Israelis put forward, which represents a swap of 7.03% of the West Bank’s land against an equal amount of land from inside post-1949 Israel, is on p. 63. On pp. 65 and 67 are maps that are described, on p. 5, as “reflecting reported positions put forward by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.” They represented a swap of 1.9% of the land of the West Bank for land inside post-1949 Israel, on the same 1:1 basis.
Interestingly, regarding the situation in occupied East Jerusalem, the “Palestinian map” presented in the report involved far fewer territorial concessions to Israel in Greater East Jerusalem than did the map that participants in the Geneva Initiative signed off on last September. (Which indicates that Abu Mazen’s position on East Jerusalem has hardened noticeably since then.)
And then, there are the three different options the Baker Institute itself proposes that the Obama administration should choose between if– as Baker and Djerejian urge– Obama moves rapidly to put forward, and hopefully also press very hard for, its own proposal for the final borders.
These three options are mapped out in full on pp. 101, 103, and 105. The first of those represents a 4.0% land swap, the second a 3.4% swap, and the third a 4.4% swap. (It is very common on U.S. diplomatic memorandums for the writer to end up presenting three options, with the hope that her or his boss will pick the “middle” one.)
Details of how these options differ in a number of sensitive areas are presented in the earlier pages.
I don’t have time to write much more about this report. I just want to close by noting three things:

    1. The Baker Institute seems to have proceeded in the continuing spirit of the disastrous April 2004 letter in which Pres. Bush assured PM Sharon that the U.S. supported a territorial outcome that would take major account of the existing facts on the ground, i.e. Israel’s completely illegal settlements, and in particular the large settlement blocs. And indeed, the way the various details are portrayed in the maps seems extremely settler-centric– i.e. just about all the maps are described as addressing the issues around this or that settlement bloc, not around the concerns of this or that large Palestinian urban center. Instead of calling an area the “Gush Etzion area”, why not call it “Greater Bethlehem”, and start from the concerns of the Palestinian Bethlehemites who are considerably more numerous than the (illegal) residents of Gush Etzion and who have suffered already for 43 years from the illegal grabbing of their lands. Where is any ethic of care or of respect for human equality in the Baker Institute’s approach?
    2. All the lines proposed on all the maps presented, by all three “parties” there, are extremely complex and sinuous… in many cases almost ridiculously so.
    3. If it was close-to-Kadima people who participated on the Israeli side, then why would we have any reason to believe Netanyahu might be interested in any part of this approach? And/or, is this all part of some plan to needle Netanyahu by trying to deal with Kadima instead of him?

4 thoughts on “The new Baker initiative

  1. Joe in Australia

    I suppose it’s all very well to gather information and draw maps of potential borders, but is there any point in discussing trade-offs without a legitimate representative of the Palestinians?

  2. Bismarck, ND

    Let’s just hope that Baker’s maps are a lot more accurate than the fraudulent ones that geographically-challenged people like Juan Cole, Andrew Sullivan and you were peddling on the internet last week.

  3. epppie

    It’s good to hear that Baker is trying to do something positive. I respect that a lot more than Petraeus’ political manipulations, that mean nothing beyond opportunism on his part. But there’s a glaring problem you ignore, Helena: he excludes Hamas. If he included Hamas, then the discussion wouldn’t be quite so settler-centric.

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