There was an echo, in Mr. Kerry’s tone, of a frustrated outburst in 1990 by James A. Baker III, secretary of state under President George Bush, who read out the number for the White House switchboard at a congressional hearing and told the Israelis and Palestinians, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”
Except there’s one problem with the Times’ recollection of this iconic incident: Baker did not tell “the Israelis and Palestinians” to call the White House.
He only told the Israelis to call the White House, thus clearly placing the blame for the lack of movement on them.
A video of the incident is at the top of this post.
Times reported it right the first time
This is how The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman reported the incident on 14 June 1990 in an article tellingly headlined “Baker Rebukes Israel on Peace Terms”:
Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d today sternly criticized conditions for peace talks laid down by Israel’s new right-wing Government and said peace in the Middle East would be impossible if Israel stuck to this hard-line approach.
In an unusually blunt message, Mr. Baker told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the United States was getting weary of what it considered to be obstructionist tactics used by all parties to the Arab-Israeli dispute.
To the Israelis, he said, it was time to lay down some realistic conditions for talking to Palestinians. To the PLO, he said, it was time to make clear that its renunciation of terrorism still stands, and to the Arab countries, he said, it was time to do “more to create an environment that can support Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.”
But the Times specifically pointed out that “Mr. Baker directed his most extensive comments to the new Israeli Government headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.”
As the Times quotes Baker:
“I have to tell you, that before I came to this hearing this morning, I was given a copy of some wire reports, one of which quotes one of the ministers in the newly formed Government. Someone asked him, ‘Why couldn’t you move forward on the proposal that the United States made for a dialogue with Palestinians from the territories?’ And he said, ‘That question is no longer relevant.’”
If that is going to be the Israeli approach, said Mr. Baker, “there won’t be any dialogue and there won’t be any peace, and the United States of America can’t make it happen.” He said: “You can’t. I can’t. The President can’t. And so, it’s going to take some really good faith, affirmative effort on the part of our good friends in Israel.”
And here’s how the Times reported the phone number incident when it happened:
If such new thinking is not forthcoming “quickly” from Israel, Mr. Baker cautioned, then the Bush Administration is simply going to disengage from Middle East diplomacy. Washington, he suggested, will adopt the attitude that could be summed up as “call us when you are serious about peace.”
To drive home that point to the Israelis, the Secretary of State gave them President Bush’s White House telephone number.
A longer quotation from Baker can be obtained from the video of his testimony above, which makes clear he was addressing only the Israelis:
If that’s going to be the approach, and that’s going to be the attitude, there won’t be any dialogue and there won’t be any peace and the United States of America can’t make it happen – you can’t, I can’t, the president can’t. And so it’s going to take some really good faith affirmative effort on the part of our good friends in Israel. And if we don’t get it, and if we can’t get it quickly, I have to tell you, Mr. Levine, that everybody over there should know that the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414. When you’re serious about peace, call us.
The cause of Baker’s frustration became clearer two years later when Shamir admitted that his strategy had been to string out “peace talks” for ten years while building settlements on occupied Palestinian land, a strategy every Israeli government has followed ever since.
Now, the Times appears to be rewriting history to make it seem more “balanced.”
The Times should correct Gordon and Landler’s story.
With thanks to Peter Feld.