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Washington’s hopeless road to Middle East diplomacy

In 1990, US President George H W Bush tasked Secretary of State James Baker to organize comprehensive Middle East peace talks to include Israel, the Palestinians and Israel’s other long-time adversaries throughout the Arab world.

By June that year, Baker ran out of patience with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who had refused negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization – notorious practitioner of terrorism and Israel’s chief enemy.

In a direct public rebuke, Baker told a congressional hearing that Shamir was not serious about peace talks. Baker sarcastically offered up the White House phone number in case Shamir wanted to call. “The phone number is 202-456-1414,” he said. “When you’re serious about this, call us.”

Baker had labored also to persuade the PLO to give up its ambitions to eliminate the Jewish state and replace it with a Palestinian sovereign nation and, along the way, to end terrorist attacks on Israelis.

The next year, unprecedented talks among Israel, the PLO, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt got underway in Madrid. Subsequent conferences in several capitals covering numerous security and economic issues eventually fizzled. Nonetheless, secret negotiations between Israel and the PLO in Oslo resulted in an agreement toward a Palestinian state within five years.

Statehood and peace never arrived, swallowed up by violence and mistrust. Years of Israeli-Palestinian unrest had sunk the Oslo Accords, seemingly for good.

Fast forward to October 2023, when the vicious attack on Israel launched by Hamas from the Gaza Strip revived talk of a two-state solution – at least in theory.

The new US-led effort is hogtied by the horrific October 7 attack on Israeli civilians that took around 1,100 lives.