Sunday, August 21, 2016

James Baker to Yitzhak Shamir, August 1991: Too Much is at Stake to Allow the Attempted Coup in Russia to Disrupt the Peace Process

This message from US Secretary of State Baker was delivered to Israeli Prime Minister Shamir on 20 August 1991, at the height of the crisis in the Soviet Union. At that moment  no-one knew whether President Mikhail Gorbachev was alive or dead, and whether the attempted coup by Communist hard-liners would succeed. 25 years later we know that the coup's failure led to the fall of the regime and the rapid breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the opposition to the coup, next to a tank in Moscow

1991 was also a fateful year for the Middle East. A short time before, at the end of July, Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush had met in Moscow to sign a historic agreement on arms limitation. They also announced that the USA and the USSR would issue invitations to an international peace conference on the Middle East in October 1991. Soviet Foreign Minister Bessmertnykh announced that the USSR would offer Israel the restoration of full diplomatic relations if it agreed to come to the conference.

But Shamir still hesitated. Israeli governments had regarded peace conferences with suspicion since the failure of the 1949 Lausanne conference. They feared that Israel would be isolated and that the Arab states would be forced to line up with extreme positions. However, after the Yom Kippur war Israel agreed to take part in the Geneva conference after receiving assurances from the Americans that they would support its stand, and the conference would serve as no more than a backdrop for bilateral negotiations. The Geneva conference met on 21 December 1973, and after the opening session it was suspended and never met again.

Since the end of the first Gulf War on 28 February 1991, the US Administration was determined to bring about peace talks between Israel and the Arabs, including the Palestinians. After the defeat of Saddam Hussein, US prestige was at its height, and the Administration wanted to fulfil promises made to its Arab allies, especially Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, to renew the negotiations with Israel. The Americans accepted Israel's proposal for a two track process – bilateral talks with the Palestinians, and direct talks with the Arab states as Israel wanted, and proposed the framework of an international conference. PLO influence was greatly weakened by its support for Saddam Hussein, and the Americans believed they could get it to acquiesce in a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, to include residents of the West Bank and Gaza acceptable to Israel.

Israel accepted this plan, but did not expect it would succeed. However, on 14 July 1991 Hafez-al Assad agreed that Syria would take part in the conference. The pressure on Shamir was building up. After the Moscow summit the Americans offered Israel another sweetener – revocation of UN Resolution  3379, which had declared Zionism a form of racism, in order to answer its objections to UN involvement in the conference. Baker telephoned Shamir and promised a US initiative to revoke the resolution.  After Baker arrived on Jerusalem and promised more assurances Shamir agreed on 1 August that Israel would come to the conference, subject to an agreed formula on Palestinian representation.

Shamir and Baker shake hands after announcing Israel's agreement, 1 August 1991
Photograph: Nathan Alpert. Government Press Office

On 4 August Baker met with Shamir, Foreign Minister David Levy and Defence Minister Moshe Arens in Jerusalem. Shamir, under pressure from Likud members led by Ariel Sharon who opposed the conference, wanted to bring the understandings to the government. Baker repeated his assurances, although he also said that the US would not retract from the policy it had laid down in the past on issues such as settlements.

The government approved the proposals. Now the ball was in the Palestinians' court. While efforts continued to persuade them to form a delegation acceptable to Israel, the crisis in Moscow came to a head. Baker hastened to send Shamir a message through the US ambassador to assure him "of the President's and my determination" to keep on working for the goal of peace. "Too much is at stake to allow the progress we have achieved to dissipate."

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