MAY 31, 1996
The United States has invested an unprecedented amount of time and wealth into Israel, leading to a special relationship between the two countries. Former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski discuss how a new Likud government may affect U.S./Israel relations and the current Middle East peace process, which was mainly built when the Labor Party controlled Israel. For a Charles Krause interview with Netanyahu advisor Zalman Shoval, click here.
JIM LEHRER: Now how this looks to two Americans who have played prominent roles in U.S. relations with Israel and the rest of the Middle East, James Baker, who was President Bush's Secretary of State, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was National Security Adviser of President Carter. First, Secretary Baker, just in general terms, what do you think the election of Netanyahu is going to do to the peace process, if anything?
JAMES BAKER, Former Secretary of State: Well, I think this is certainly going to slow it down some, Jim. At the very least, a new government has to get is feet on the ground and get its positions in order. And I think, I really think if we're honest and candid that this has got to be read as something of a setback for the peace process because you had a government there in Israel that was leaning very far forward for peace. Now you have a new government that's got to come in. It's got to develop its positions. It's got to begin, it's got to get its negotiating team in place, and all the rest, and they've taken some positions during the campaign that, that will make it difficult to move forward in the, in the short to medium term, in my view. That's not to say that the peace process is over. It isn't, and I think that there will be--there will be efforts on the part of a Netanyahu government to move, move forward toward peace.
JIM LEHRER: Is it even an option for Netanyahu and his government to stop the peace process?
SEC. BAKER: No, I really don't think so. I think it's gone too far. Too much has been accomplished. Too much frankly that is good has been accomplished. There's no, there's no real dispute. There's no real dispute in the Israeli election about the benefits of the peace between Israel and Jordan, for instance. There is a difference of opinion between Labor and Likud on how to proceed with the Palestinians and at what pace, and, of course, how to proceed on the Syrian and Lebanese track.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Dr. Brzezinski, a setback?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser: It's a setback of sorts. But as Sec. Baker has said, I think it's a manageable setback. I can't imagine the peace process being derailed all together without a very serious crisis in American-Israeli relations, and this is something we don't want. This is something the Israelis don't want. Moreover, you listen carefully to what Netanyahu is now saying and to what Amb. Shoval, a close associate of his, is now saying. They're clearly beginning to walk away already now, literally hours after victory, from some of the things that were being said during the campaign. Amb. Shoval seemed to me to be indicating some degree of restraint and flexibility on the subject of the settlements. He was somewhat ambiguous even on the question of the Golan Heights. He said they couldn't give it back for half-baked peace, which begs the question whether the peace was complete.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
DR. BRZEZINSKI: It might not be a different proposition.
JIM LEHRER: If it was fully baked, it might be all right.
DR. BRZEZINSKI: Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
DR. BRZEZINSKI: He was very firm on the question of the Palestinian state, but I suspect that too ultimately is a negotiating position because a de facto state, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, already exists, would have to be dismantled, and that would be rather difficult without some violence.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Brzezinski, what's your overall assessment of Netanyahu?
DR. BRZEZINSKI: I don't know him personally. I have to say, in all frankness, that his performance as the opposition leader struck me occasionally as being very demagogic. He's very slick, but at the same time, I think he's a realistic. He's a realistic, and the things he's saying now and particularly the things his associates are saying suggest to me that he might not be impossible to deal with. We had to deal, when I was in the White House with Mr. Begin. Mr. Begin was very, very, very, tough.
JIM LEHRER: He was the first Likud prime minister.
DR. BRZEZINSKI: Prime Minister. That's right. And yet, we got the Camp David Accords. I would not be altogether surprised if the United States persists, is understanding of Israeli concerns, but is at the same time clear about the American national interest, if progress towards peace could not be resumed.
JIM LEHRER: Sec. Baker, you had some experiences with Netanyahu. In 1990, in fact, you barred him from the State Department because he said that U.S. policy--Middle East policy is based on "distortions and lies." What was that all about?
SEC. BAKER: I think he said America's policies were based on--was built on lies and distortions -- and, of course, our government diplomatically, our government couldn't accept that particularly from the representative of a friendly government. We would not even have accepted that from the representative of an unfriendly government.
JIM LEHRER: What was his job at the time?
SEC. BAKER: He was deputy foreign minister.
JIM LEHRER: Deputy foreign minister, that's right.
SEC. BAKER: Of Israel at the time. And--but we, you know, this--our action was not an ad hominum action. It was a governmental action, and as a matter of fact on a personal basis, my relationship with his is quite good. I had a very good meeting with him as a private citizen when he was head of the opposition in Israel in 1994, when I was there on a visit. But I think the point that Zbig just made is one we ought to focus on. Literally hours after his election, they're walking away, or at least they're making noises that walk away from some of the more hard-line statements they made in the campaign, and I think you have to understand that and recognize that here's a--here's a relatively young man, a young politician, who now has an opportunity to govern, [the] first opportunity really that he has had to be a--to be a real high level player in government and to, and to make policy, if you will, and as opposed to just campaigning. And I think that he, like other Israeli prime ministers before him, is going to recognize the importance, No. 1, of managing properly the U.S./Israeli relationship in terms of his commitment to the peace process, and is also going to be conscious of the judgments of history regarding the importance of bringing peace to the Israeli people.
JIM LEHRER: Is it--is it your impression, Sec. Baker, that he has an understanding of the relationship with the United States, how important it is?
SEC. BAKER: Absolutely. I think absolutely. Bibi went to MIT, and I think he understands it as well, if not better, than others, and Zalman Shoval a minute ago talked about some of the tensions that were in the relationship during the, during the Bush years and--
JIM LEHRER: He was talking about you, wasn't he?
SEC. BAKER: He was talking about our administration and the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir, which ultimately was turned out of power for one reason--I mean, among other things, because they were not able to manage the U.S.-Israeli relationship properly. That is really important for an Israeli prime minister. These two countries, America and Israel, are so close and so committed to each other that the relationship is going to continue. But there are going to be tensions and tensions over settlements. It's long been the policy of the United States to oppose settlements. During Zbig's time, they were opposed as illegal. During our time, they were called "obstacles to peace." And I simply cannot conceive of a situation where this new government would come back in here now and begin an aggressive, really aggressive settlements policy that would, that would tube the Middle East peace process. I don't think it's going to happen.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Brzezinski, how does Sec. Christopher, President Clinton, and all their folks use this special relationship and the power that they do have to influence Netanyahu, or how do they play this thing now?
DR. BRZEZINSKI: Well, I was rather struck by what Christopher said. He said that we are committed to the peace process. He said that we will be candid with him when he comes here, and we will outline our views and our positions, plus of course endorsing him and saying the usual traditional things about friendship and close collaboration. I think it was sending him a message, in effect, and I think it was the right message, which is, we are committed to Israel, we'll stand by Israel, we appreciate our moral as well as political obligation to Israel, but we also have an agenda of our own and a national interest of our own, and the Israelis have to understand that, and the principal interest of the United States is to promote peace in the Middle East, because if we don't promote peace, then not only will Israel suffer but we'll suffer more generally. I think in addition to saying this publicly, I suspect, quietly, we'll be outlining to the Israelis our opposition on the key issues, and where retrogressive steps by the new government would be most damaging. And a final point.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
DR. BRZEZINSKI: I would suspect that probably between now and the elections, not too much--our elections--
JIM LEHRER: Our elections.
DR. BRZEZINSKI: --not too much will happen because once real progress towards peace begins to be resumed, there will be occasional misunderstandings, occasional frictions, and I don't think the administration would want that before the elections.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead.
SEC. BAKER: Jim, can I just jump in there--
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Yes.
SEC. BAKER: --and say I really agree with that last statement that Zbig made. I, I don't see how we're going to make much progress, if any, between now and our elections here. But beyond what Sec. Christopher said, look, go back and look at a statement that President Clinton, I think, made within the last 24 hours where he said we will support or we can support or we do support any government that's democratically elected in Israel, that, that supports the peace process, I think something like that. I don't have the exact quote. But I think they are sending the right message.
JIM LEHRER: And that--and we have--that's a proper role, Dr. Brzezinski, for the United States to tell Israel, we have an interest here, it isn't just up to you and your friends in the Middle East?
DR. BRZEZINSKI: No. Damn right, it's our proper role. It really is. After all, we have major interests in the Middle East. Secondly, we are the principal supporter of Israel. We're doing it because we recognize a moral obligation. We also have a political interest, but, my gosh, there has never been I think a case in international affairs in which one country has transferred so much wealth to another country to make it secure, to make it comfortable, to help it survive, and I think that certainly gives us a moral as well as a political right to indicate what our position is on the issues and where our interests are affected.
JIM LEHRER: We have the--we have the right to throw our weight around, Sec. Baker?
SEC. BAKER: Well, I don't think it's throwing your weight around to articulate what your policy positions are, Jim, and have been, frankly, under both Democratic and Republican administrations for many, many years. We don't ask for a whole lot. We oppose settlements and we ask, we ask our close friend and ally, whose security we are steadfastly committed to protect, to support peace. I don't think that's throwing your weight around.
JIM LEHRER: And you don't have any doubt, Sec. Baker, that Netanyahu understands that?
SEC. BAKER: Oh, I have no doubt about that.
JIM LEHRER: So what did he do, Dr. Brzezinski, say certain things? In other words, politics in Israel is just like politics in the United States, you have to say things to get elected?
DR. BRZEZINSKI: Yeah, but there's one issue we haven't really addressed. It's this. He may be a realist. Shoval sounded very much like a realist, and knowing him, I'm sure he is. But we don't know yet the make-up of that coalition government. And unfortunately, one of the consequences of the new electoral system, which involves for the first time the election of the prime minister separately, but then they vote separately for parties, one of the consequences of that is that more extremist parties have gotten a higher percentage of seats than in the past. And that means in all probability that Netanyahu will have a coalition which is going to be rather rigid, somewhat extremist, somewhat fundamentalist on the key issues, and he will be very dependent, it seems to me, not only on how he manages that coalition but on the amount of support he gets from the outside and on the degree to which he can argue credibly that some accommodation by him is necessary for the sake of a good American-Israeli relationship.
SEC. BAKER: I think that the issue may be a bit more even fundamental than that, Jim. I think the real gut issue here, and that's an excellent point that Zbig just made, but the real gut issue is, is Bibi Netanyahu going to be the master of this coalition, or is he going to be the captive of this coalition? And we don't know that yet, and he probably doesn't know completely yet exactly how much running room he's going to have if he wants to, to lean forward in some of these areas.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much. We'll see.