In 1990, Secretary of State James Baker had basically had it up to here with the Israeli government. The (George H.W.) Bush administration had been trying to entice Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir into negotiations with the Palestinians but he kept adding new conditions to get the United States off his back.
To be acceptable to Shamir, any Palestinian interlocutors had to have no connections with the PLO, none with any associates of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and could not be from Jerusalem. Beyond that, the Israelis would decide which Palestinians were acceptable as negotiating partners based on their idea of merit (only pro-Israel Palestinians would do, apparently).
Baker was fuming but held his tongue until he went before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss Middle East prospects. But then something happened and, for perhaps the last time ever, a top U.S. government official told the Israelis what he really thought.
First Baker said that he had intended to say that he was ready for a new start with the just re-elected Shamir government but he changed his mind on the way to the hearing. ''I have to tell you, that before I came to this hearing this morning, I was given a copy of some wire reports, one of which quotes one of the ministers in the newly formed government," he said.
Those "wire reports" cited top Israeli officials announcing new conditions for negotiations. According to then-New York Times correspondent (now columnist Thomas Friedman):
Earlier today, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir added an additional condition: that Palestinian negotiators must formally embrace Israel's idea that negotiations would be about autonomy for the occupied territories and nothing more, before talks could begin. The American position is that the talks should open with a discussion about autonomy, but then eventually move on to issues of final status.
In other words, negotiations would begin and end with discussions about "autonomy." "Autonomy" would have meant that Israel could keep all the land but Palestinians would have the responsibility for municipal services like schools, sanitation and health. It was the perfect solution... for Israel.
Baker blew up. He told the committee (again from the Times):
If that is going to be the Israeli approach, said Mr. Baker, ''there won't be any dialogue and there won't be any peace, and the United States of America can't make it happen.'' He said: ''You can't. I can't. The President can't...."
He then said that until the Israelis changed their attitude, the Bush administration was going to disengage from the Israeli-Palestinian issue (a not happy prospect for Israel given that it was then embroiled in trying to suppress the first intifada).
He concluded by telling the Israelis "when you're serious about peace, call us." To emphasize his point, he said, "the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414.''
And that was that. The Bush administration never reconciled with Shamir. Although Baker handed out Bush's phone number, it was Shamir's number that America now had. The administration then worked around him until it could help engineer his downfall at the hands of Yitzhak Rabin, who Bush and Baker very much wanted to see as prime minister. (Bush himself lost his bid for re-election due to the languishing economy, leaving Bill Clinton to work with Rabin on Middle East issues).
Shamir later admitted that he had no intention of ever accommodating the Palestinians in any way. In an interview after leaving office, he said:
I would have carried out autonomy talks for 10 years, and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].
Baker's approach was totally vindicated.
And yesterday Shamir's long-time protégé, Binyamin Netanyahu openly adopted the Shamir strategy. No one needs to wait until his retirement to understand that, like Shamir's, it is designed to prevent negotiations not advance them.
Ha'aretz reported that the Netanyahu government has informed Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel is not interested in discussing land and borders right now.
A senior Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject, expressed considerable skepticism regarding Kerry's steps, and made cynical, slightly scornful comments regarding his attitude. "Kerry believes that he can bring about the solution, the treaty and the salvation," he said. "He thinks that the conflict is primarily over territory...and that is wrong."
Wrong? No, that is what the conflict has been about since the occupation began in 1967 and certainly since Israel and the PLO agreed that both sides have the right to peace and security.
So we are back to Shamir and the bad old days before Rabin.
The good news is that Netanyahu has made everything so clear. He has no interest in peace, negotiations, any kind of territorial withdrawal or even freezing settlements. Like Shamir, he just wants to buy time until it will be absolutely impossible to create a Palestinian state, if it isn't already. As for the United States, Netanyahu is not interested in what it wants.
The only question left is what the Obama administration will do in response. It could follow Baker's example and take a walk. Even better, it could tell Netanyahu that future aid from the U.S. will be linked to its occasional compliance with U.S. wishes regarding the occupation. Or it could say, it won't keep following Israel's dictates on sanctions or Palestine's right to recognition by the United Nations. Or it could, as Bush and Baker did, squeeze the Israeli prime minister until the Israeli public dumps him.
It could do any of those.
Will it? I'm taking bets.
But here is a sure one. There is no possibility of serious negotiation so long as Binyamin Netanyahu is prime minister of Israel.