Baker's Mideast Ire

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SECRETARY of State James Baker vented his frustration last week with the stalled Mideast peace process. And he has ample cause for frustration. Mr. Baker rightly took issue with the conditions being set by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir before a dialogue with the Palestinians can begin. Mr. Shamir specified he'll talk only to Palestinians with whom he shares common ground - that is, who disavow the goal of an eventual Palestinian state in territories now controlled by Israel and who have no connection at all with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

That, of course, is tantamount to rejecting any dialogue. As the secretary said before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, ``... you can't negotiate anything if you lay down these conditions beforehand.''

Shamir has since said Baker misunderstood him. We hope that's the case. But it will take some clear statements of intent to change the impression that the prime minister, and many members of his Cabinet, don't really want to talk peace with Palestinians. Their inclination, instead, has been to suggest peace efforts with Arab nations in the region - as if that could somehow precede, and perhaps even supersede, peace with the Palestinians.

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Shamir, admittedly, has the tricky task of holding on to right-wing coalition members while not alienating the US. One analyst likens it to trying to walk a tightrope that's not there.

Baker had criticism for the PLO, too. He correctly demanded a clear renunciation of terrorism that unmistakably takes in the May 30 attempt by Palestinian guerrillas to land on beaches crowded with Israeli bathers. The PLO is reportedly conducting an in-house investigation to determine whether civilians were indeed targeted.

Hoping to sustain its dialogue own with Palestinians, the Bush administration is giving internal PLO politics some time to play out. But if condemnation of the raid is not forthcoming, that crucial dialogue may have to be suspended.

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