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Beyond Cairo: Translating 'Important' Obama Message into Policies

Interviewee: Edward P. Djerejian, Director, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 4, 2009

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Former U.S. ambassador to Syria and to Israel Edward P. Djerejian sees the speech in Cairo by President Obama to the Muslim world as "a very powerful public diplomacy statement." But taking into account the years of frustration by previous administrations, he says Obama made some fundamental framework points that "will have to be translated into actual and effective policies." Djerejian says two chief arenas for U.S. action are the Arab-Israeli conflict, where Washington can play a stepped-up brokering role, and the troubled relationship with Iran, which requires a broad, strategic dialogue encompassing all major bilateral issues.

President Obama has given a much-anticipated speech about U.S. relations with the Muslim world but it also included U.S. relations with Israel and a great deal about life in the United States. How would you sum up the speech?

The speech was a very important statement by an American president to the Muslim world. By just being the first African-American president ,whose family had Muslim background---although he is a Christian as he stated in his speech--- speaks volumes in itself. His just standing there in Cairo University demonstrated what America is at its best: truly a country of opportunity for everyone who strives to achieve and to reach the heights, and that equality of opportunity message, came across just by his being there. That in itself was a very powerful public diplomacy statement. A second point, as he underscored in his speech, is that America is a country that enjoys religious freedom. In other words, America welcomes people of all faiths to practice their religions freely, although we are a secular state and we obviously have the very important constitutional division of state from religion. He affirmed that the United States is a very practicing religious country and it was very important for him to talk about the need for the people of the Book -Christians, Muslims, and Jews - to be living in peace and harmony.

How does that relate to the big issues out there?

He segued that very well into the need for resolution of the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict. He made it clear he would take a major role in conflict resolution to bring, in the first instance, the Israelis and Palestinians together. But he is very intent on a wider peace - to bring in Syria and Lebanon if things go well enough. But the audience reacted by applause certainly when he mentioned the Palestinian issue and that's a very important part of the message since the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the single most important political issue in the region as a whole. It has resonance not only amongst Arabs but Muslims also. It's the issue that brings people into the streets, and this was one of the major flaws in the thinking of the neo-cons [of the Bush administration] was that they felt that the Arab-Israeli conflict was not really the primary issue, the real issue was in overthrowing authoritarian regimes and promoting democracy so that Israel would be able to negotiate peace with democratic neighbors.

I remember when I was ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration Yitzhak Rabin, the then prime minister, told me, "if Israel had to wait for its Arab neighbors to become democratic to make peace, we would be waiting a thousand years." Obama blended, very skillfully, a larger outreach to the Muslim world by stressing that there is no innate hostility between the United States and the Arab and the Muslim world, that we have actually much in common --and it is in our mutual interest, both as Americans and as Arabs and Muslims, to marginalize the extremists and the terrorists in our midst who preach a doctrine of violence and terrorism, and who have to be marginalized for our societies to move forward and to reduce the threat that we face.

"Obama blended, very skillfully, a larger outreach to the Muslim world by stressing that there is no innate hostility between the United States and the Arab and the Muslim world, that we have actually much in common, and it is in our mutual interest, both as Americans and as Arabs and Muslims to marginalize the extremists."

In the first chapter of your new book, Danger and Opportunity, you have a letter to the new president in which you say on the Arab-Israeli front everything goes through Jerusalem, meaning the Palestinian-Israeli relations are foremost. And he stressed again the need for a two-state solution and he picked up on the Road Map which the Bush administration had drafted. How do you think the president will proceed? Is he heading for a global conference like the Madrid Conference of 1991 after the Persian Gulf War. Or is Obama going to work bilaterally?

In the first instance, he's going to work bilaterally because he's chosen a very good presidential emissary in George J. Mitchell to do the groundwork in brokering the Israelis and the Palestinians on all the key issues. I think the Obama administration is adopting some of the obligations, as you stated, in the Road Map on both sides. The Palestinians have to be able to politically represent their people effectively. They have to build security infrastructure so that they control the guns in the street, [so] that there's only one weapon that's used and that's the weapon of the Palestinian Authority, the government, [so] that you don't have these militias, you don't have Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other groups taking security into their own hands and initiating acts of violence against the Israelis. Those are very important obligations on the part of the Palestinians. Now where the Palestinians have done well is that they have produced very good economic reforms, especially under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. And so they cleaned up their act to a great extent in terms of being able to account for and use the funds that are flowing into the Palestinian Authority, especially from abroad.

The Israelis on their side have very important obligations to stop the settlements, and the Obama administration has taken a very clear stand on stopping settlements --- not only eliminating the illegal outposts, but stopping all settlement activity including "natural growth," which has obviously been criticized by the Israelis, especially within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition. The Israelis also have an obligation to facilitate the access routes for Palestinians within the West Bank, and to lift checkpoints. So each side has its obligations and this is what the Obama administration is focusing on in the first instance. Now, where this leads to hopefully will be negotiations on the final status issues, and that again may take a leaf from the Annapolis initiative [of November 2007] of the last administration, which means while you're taking actions on the ground in terms of security and settlements, etc., you're also engaging the Israelis and the Palestinians to discuss borders, territorial components of peace, Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees, to arrive at a final settlement. So I think that's how they are approaching it. Now whether they decide to bring in the international community in a formal way as you stated, perhaps another Madrid Conference type of thing, or just using the quartet has to be seen.

"I do not think that we are going to be able in any way effectively to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions … if the United States and Iran do not engage in a comprehensive dialogue where we put everything on the table."

How do you get around the problem of there being a split Palestinian leadership?

It's interesting, the president mentioned Hamas in his speech and reiterated the conditions that Hamas should accept in order to become, if it can, a responsible player in any Palestinian approach towards peace with Israel -- accepting past agreements, ending violence, and recognizing Israel's right to exist. But it was interesting that he mentioned Hamas specifically because that was a signal that this administration is willing to promote or see a political reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, if Hamas agrees to be a responsible player. That was an important signal.

And on Iran, on the nuclear standoff, that's pretty much what he said before, right?

The important thing there is he wants to open up a strategic dialogue, which I certainly support completely, between the United States and Iran. I do not think that we are going to be able in any way effectively to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions--and I'm thinking now if indeed they are intent on building nuclear weapons capability--if the United States and Iran do not engage in a comprehensive dialogue where we put everything on the table. Everything should be on the table, all the issues from our bilateral relationship, to the nuclear issue, to Arab-Israeli peace, Hamas, Hezbollah, terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan. It is also important that we state, and here the president made a very important reference in his speech, that regime change in Iran is not part of our agenda. There was always a suspicion among Iranians during the Bush administration that regime change was on the agenda of the Bush administration.

In the Clinton administration there was an effort by Madeleine Albright when she was secretary of state, and even by the president himself, to try and get a dialogue going with Iran but it never got anywhere.

That's right, Madeleine Albright did make that effort with President Clinton but it didn't get anywhere and I think again I would strongly recommend that in order to have that dialogue you really have to put everything on the table. Now, they may not be ready for that dialogue and that water will have to be tested.

Summing up, where do we go from here?

President Obama has laid a very good public diplomacy framework for America's engagement with the Arab and the Muslim world. The basic message is we are not your enemy, that we have a lot of common tasks and challenges that we can work together to achieve. We the United States are willing to move forward with our Arab and Muslim partners. We're willing to work for this dialogue of civilizations, we're willing to work for economic social development and more exchanges, more communication between the two sides, we're willing to work for Arab-Israeli peace, and we're willing to try to put a cap on nuclear weapons development, which would destabilize the region and the world. And so he made some very fundamental framework points that will now have to be--and here's the trick--will have to be translated into actual and effective policies. It's one thing to state the policy, it's another thing to carry it out effectively, and that's been a challenge of every administration in the Middle East.

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