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.

President George HW Bush with Secretary of State James Baker at a conference. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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. Bush and Baker could brush aside the PLO’s terrorist past. Biden is not dismissing the October 7 attack in the name of future peace. At the same time, only an Israeli commitment to a two-state solution can wipe away Arab anger over Israel’s massive retaliatory offensive that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians.

In any event, Biden has been unable to square the irreconcilable ambitions of the antagonists: Israel to wipe out Hamas and pacify Gaza with some sort of foreign occupation; Hamas, not only to survive but to insert itself in a future state of Palestine.

This week, Biden sent US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Middle East, the latest of several visits to the Middle East to promote proposals for a ceasefire, release of hostages held by Hamas and a negotiation mechanism leading to a Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the Likud Party once led by Shamir, has balked at American proposals. He refuses the statehood formula and offers only a temporary ceasefire, demands the release of hostages after which the war would continue unabated. He has not had to weather the kind of public verbal thrashing that Baker used on Shamir.

Biden has mouthed a sometimes contradictory menu of public pronouncements. He’s pledged open-ended support for Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas but also advised Netanyahu not to kill too many Palestinian civilians.

Biden said an Israeli invasion of the southern Gaza town of Rafah, Hamas’ last redoubt, would cross a “red line” and bring some sort of punishment to Israel. The only measure taken was cancellation of shipments of particularly heavy aerial bombs.

As for Hamas, Biden seems to want Hamas to sign its own death warrant: agree to a ceasefire after which Israel will continue to pursue retribution to the ends of the earth. Biden’s National Security Affairs advisor Jake Sullivan said the US is “awaiting” Hamas’s response.

Spokesman Osama Hamdan said Hamas is open to discussion about ending Israel’s “aggression,” the withdrawal of its army from Gaza and reconstruction of the enclave before consideration of hostage release.

Much outside commentary about Biden’s treatment of both Netanyahu and Hamas focuses on his presumed domestic political needs in advance of November presidential elections. He is trying to preserve support of two usually reliable constituencies—Jewish-American voters who defend Israel and Arab-American voters angry over the carnage in Gaza and persistent US failure to produce a Palestinian state.

We’ve seen an erosion of US ability to cow either Israel or the Palestinians. In the 1990s, the US was at the height of its regional influence.

  • The US had expelled Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait, making Arab states beholden to Washington.
  • Israel, kept out of the war at Washington’s insistence, was reluctant to cross an ally that had handily defeated Iraq, one of its most hardened regional adversaries.
  • Yasser Arafat, the PLO chieftain of the time, had supported Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and was eager for any kind of political rehabilitation. His conversion from terrorist to statesman was complete when he and Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin shared a Nobel Peace Prize for signing the Oslo Accords.

In the 20th century, the US luster as all-conquering regional paladin has faded:

  • It struggled in two long, unsuccessful conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • It faces a belligerent regional foe in Iran that employs proxy “axis of resistance” allies in Lebanon and Yemen to bedevil American Middle East policy.
  • Washington’s eyes are on challenges to its power elsewhere: in Asia, where China is flaunting its growing military power and in Eastern Europe where Russia invaded a neighbor and wants to drive NATO away from its borders.

But are enough key parties interested in ending the war? So far, not, said Aaron David Miller, a veteran US diplomat. “Negotiations work in the end only if the parties feel sufficient pain accompanied by the prospects of gain, and that generates urgency,” he said. “The only party that is in a hurry here is the Biden administration.”

Netanyahu, for instance, views military success as a means of staying in power and redeeming himself for having overseen Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israeli soil.

Survival appears to be the only item is on Hamas’s mind, and the hostages in its hands are its only leverage in getting Israel to end the war.  

The only way out for the US is clarity of purpose and sustained diplomatic pressure on all sides, said Robert Hunter, a former US ambassador to NATO. “The President must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends,” wrote Hunter. “He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s.”