As a former Israeli ambassador to Canada and an expert in international law, Alan Baker has been involved in the negotiation and drafting of agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Last year Baker was thrust into the spotlight when he was appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu to the three-member committee chaired by former justice Edmund Levy to examine the legal aspects of land ownership in the West Bank. That produced the highly publicized Levy Report.
The Jewish Press: Your history is an interesting blend of diaspora and Israeli influences. How has that contributed to your political outlook?
Baker: I’m from a traditional Jewish family in England. As a student I was very much involved in Jewish student organizations and was elected chairman of the Organization of Jewish Students of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That was the time that the New Left came up, during the Six-Day War. There were huge battles on campuses then, and I found myself taking part in debates on Israel’s right to exist, its right to defend itself, and the right of the Jewish community to shechitah, many of the issues that are still around.
Being very much involved in politics and feeling the anti-Semitism among the British people, I decided the place for Jews is in Israel and made aliyah when I was twenty-three. I married an Israeli, got a master’s degree in international law at Hebrew University and went to the army. During the Yom Kippur War I was stranded in an Israeli outpost on the Suez Canal and had to fight my way out. Three of our men were killed. It was a very difficult time. All these things mold your personality.
Has your legal background affected your decision-making regarding Israeli policies?
Strangely enough, I’m not involved in Israeli politics. I’ve always been a civil servant. I’ve worked for virtually every Israeli foreign minister since Moshe Dayan, and the prime ministers. As a legal adviser my job is to give advice, which can either be taken or not. But I never really came out with my own political position.
However, as an Israeli I have three sons who served in the army, and that influences your whole outlook and makes you very conscious of the fact that you must do everything and anything to try to achieve peace. I also served as a military prosecutor in the Gaza Strip at the time Ariel Sharon headed the Southern Command and there was a huge wave of terrorism. And I served as senior legal adviser on issues of international law in the Israeli army headquarters.
I saw the shallowness of politics, the way the Arabs manipulate the international community against Israel by lying and undermining a lot of the accepted norms. You have to find ways of responding to it, which is what I developed over thirty-odd years.
You’ve had ample opportunity to observe the evolution of world opinion toward Israel and the Jewish community at large. Why has it changed over the years?
What has happened over the years is that the Arabs have enhanced their influence in the UN and their capability of neutralizing it, much more so now than twenty years ago. I certainly feel the difference. When you walk along the corridors of the UN and your best friends walk past you and don’t look at you because they’re afraid the Arabs might see them talking to you, it’s not a pleasant feeling. I think it’s clear that there is an element of anti-Semitism and resentment in the international community to the achievements of Israel, to the fact that we are a superpower in the field of high technology. It’s much easier for me to deal with Arabs and Palestinians because they’re up front. They say what they think.
As one of three appointees to the Levy Committee, you concluded in the Levy Report that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not occupation and that the Israeli settlements are legal under international law. Can you explain how you arrived at that conclusion?
This was nothing new. This has always been Israel’s position, from the day after the entry into the West Bank. Meir Shamgar, who became chief justice and then military advocate general, wrote in 1967-68 that this cannot be considered occupation because we haven’t occupied it from a sovereign country. Jordan was there illegally.