Page last updated at 16:18 GMT, Saturday, 20 March 2010

History lessons for US policy on Israel?

With US-Israeli ties at a low ebb over plans to build new homes for settlers in disputed East Jerusalem, the BBC's Paul Adams wonders if a former secretary of state offers lessons for Hillary Clinton in taking on Washington's powerful Israel lobby.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell at Moscow Quartet meeting - 17 March 2010
The Americans want Israel and the Palestinians to restart talks

I've got a letter here that I really ought to forward. It bears my home address, to be sure, and the right post code too. But it's addressed to the Honourable James A Baker III.

Which is odd, but it does finally explain something that's intrigued us ever since we moved into our green wooden house in leafy suburban Washington.

Downstairs in the basement, in a cupboard which contains a jumble of wires and fuses is a board where phone lines were once routed.

Scrawled in the corner are a handful of numbers, bearing cryptic names. Sec Phone; W H; and D O State.

We'd always wondered who it was who once lived here and needed secure lines to the White House and the State Department but I'd never quite summoned the courage to call W H and ask to be put through to the president.

I'm even less inclined to now. Masquerading as Washington's most formidable Secretary of State of recent times could land me in a whole lot of trouble.

Which brings me, somewhat obliquely, to my point.

Punish or pander?

For in some ways, this would be no bad time for someone to try to emulate James Baker. To bring to Middle East diplomacy the mixture of patrician charm and steely Texan resolve that won the respect, and occasionally the fear of the Israelis and Palestinians as he shuttled in and out of Jerusalem almost 20 years ago.

Because, in the words of the former State Department official, Aaron Miller, who once served under Baker, the current American administration doesn't know what to do with Israel. Does it punish? Or pander?

View of East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo - 11 March 2010
Israel surprised the US with plans to build 1,600 new homes in E Jerusalem

The instinct, after Joe Biden was clobbered by a big wet fish during his visit to Israel, was to punish.

The Israeli government's settlement announcement wasn't exactly out of character - another Western diplomat told me that his own minister's visits to the Jewish state had always been accompanied by a slight sense of dread over what surprise the Israelis had in store - but it was particularly brutal.

Washington's response went way beyond the usual mild protest. The present Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said she felt insulted.

A spokesman said the Israeli announcement sent what he called a "deeply negative signal", not just about the peace process, but about Israel's relationship with the United States. Strong stuff.

A few days later, and the tone had already changed. Mrs Clinton spoke of the unshakable bond that ties Israel and the United States together.

She's clearly got half an eye on Monday, when she and Benjamin Netanyahu both make speeches, on the same day, to the annual conference of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby here in Washington.

But AIPAC was quick to take umbrage with the Obama administration, warning it not to make public demands of Israel.

Pentagon lobby

I think the Secretary of State can be forgiven for not looking forward to this year's conference with any great relish.

Perhaps she, like me, is thinking about James Baker. For 21 years ago he stood where Hillary will stand on Monday morning and told his stunned AIPAC hosts that it was time, in his words, "for Israel... to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel. Foreswear annexation; stop settlement activity".

Former US Secretary of State James Baker in 1992
James Baker was respected by both Israelis and Palestinians

Last year it was Joe Biden's turn. In his speech to AIPAC he also urged Israel to stop building settlements. Makes you wonder if someone, last week, wasn't trying to make a point.

But what line will Hillary take on Monday? It seems her people are bracing themselves for an uncomfortable encounter.

There might be another reason for AIPAC delegates to feel uneasy this year.

That's because America's best known general, David Petraeus, has, in the words of one commentator, "discovered the Holy Land". And it's bothering him.

In a statement to the Senate's Armed Services Committee this week, he said that a perception of American favouritism for Israel was fomenting anti-American sentiment.

Hardly a novel observation but for the most influential general of recent times to say, publicly, that his job, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not being helped, that American lives are being endangered, by the widespread bitterness engendered by an unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict... Now that is highly unusual.

And as Mark Perry of the website Foreign Policy put it, the Pentagon is the most powerful lobby in America.

So is the Obama administration in the midst of a rethink about Israel?

It's hard to tell. Perhaps I should ask James Baker? Or should I throw caution to the wind after all, pick up my hotline and ask, in my best Texan drawl, to speak directly to the president?

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