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Assessing U.S. Leadership in Mideast

Interviewee: Edward P. Djerejian, Director of the James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy, Rice University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 22, 2011

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President Barack Obama's 2010 speech to the General Assembly proffered the hope that by this year "we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations--an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel," or, implicitly, a negotiated settlement. But while Obama has held Mideast diplomacy as a priority, the results have been disappointing, says Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. envoy to Israel and Syria. The White House spent too much time working to get Israel to freeze settlement-building instead of devising "the parameters of a framework of negotiations that would make it very difficult for both sides to say 'no' to moving forward," says Djerejian. In the administration's response to the political turmoil in the Middle East, Djerejian gives it solid marks. The White House has "tactically taken the right course in addressing the political dynamics of change," he says.

How do you see the administration's handling of this latest Middle East crisis?

The gap between word and deed has been disappointing. President Obama took a strong, principled position on Arab-Israeli peacemaking at the outset of this administration in appointing former senator George Mitchell right up front as his Middle East peace envoy. Obama was taking a page out of the lessons learned from both Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's presidencies; they both got involved in Arab-Israeli peace making late in their second terms, and as a result they both ran out of time. So Obama made a very wise decision to state a principled American position on the necessity of moving forward, especially on the Palestinian track. That was good, including his historic speech in Cairo outlining a U.S. strategy for the Arab and the Muslim world.

But the facts on the ground and the negotiations themselves have gone nowhere. This deep frustration with the lack of results has brought us to this week's United Nation's scenario, where the Palestinians are trying, in my mind, to level the playing field with Israel, in establishing either through the Security Council and/or through the General Assembly a notion of statehood that would bring to the fore the immediacy of getting on with final-status negotiations between the two.

Are U.S. negotiations floundering?

The negotiations have gone nowhere, because the United States has [yet] to play the role of an honest broker. It means introducing at the negotiating table the parameters of a framework of negotiations that would make it hard for both sides to say "no" to moving forward. I don't think that has been done deftly at all by the administration's negotiating teams.

The Palestinians are trying to level the playing field with Israel, in establishing a notion of statehood that would bring to the fore the immediacy of getting on with final-status negotiations between the two.

If you look at the political constraints for both Israelis and Palestinians, you realize that you need a strong outside hand, not to dictate a settlement, but to establish the parameters of a negotiating framework that would be difficult for the parties to reject. This isn't a question of pressure. It's a question of strategic analysis and diplomacy to get the parties engaged.

Why hasn't the Obama administration presented that kind of a blueprint?

I don't understand why they didn't. The president started out totally on the right track, with principled positions on the necessity for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and then moving on to a comprehensive settlement with Syria and Lebanon. But the administration got distracted by the Israeli settlements issue becoming "The Issue." Netanyahu's government didn't budge, and the administration lost a lot of time tactically dealing with that.

What has worked in the past is that when an American president stands tall, be it a Democratic or Republican president, and outlines the American approach--which the United States considers to be an equitable framework to move forward on--we have had some success. What's needed now is for the United States to put down parameters for a framework; not specific solutions to the final-status issues, but a political horizon of what an Israeli-Palestinian final settlement could look like. That gives each side something to point to in terms of engaging with the other. The framework should be tied closely to a negotiating timeline and benchmarks on the major categories of negotiations.

George Mitchell started out wisely by focusing on territory and security. He worked on a territorial settlement along the pre-war 1967 lines, with land swaps to accommodate for the Israeli settlements that would be incorporated into Israel and compensating the Palestinians through reciprocal land swaps. This was the right approach because, through the territorial issue, you can establish a level of agreement that could move you on to the other final-status issues such as the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and security arrangements.

At the Baker Institute, we did a report (PDF) in 2010 that we gave to George Mitchell and others in the administration. We identified the major obstacles to a territorial agreement: the major settlement issues, mostly around Jerusalem; the possible compromises on what settlements could be moved where; possible territorial land swaps. This was a useful exercise because we narrowed the gap and proved that with an American honest-broker role, a territorial settlement is truly possible. Bill Clinton got close to that. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas got close to that, but it was never brought to fruition. Unfortunately, George Mitchell's efforts failed because there was not the necessary political will on all sides to move these negotiations forward.

The overall Middle East situation hasn't changed much since we talked in April, though the situation in Syria has obviously worsened. How do you describe overall U.S. policy in the Middle East now?

The Obama administration has tactically taken the right course in addressing the political dynamics of change. The administration has stated that what's happening in the Arab world--the quest for individual liberties, human rights, broader political participation, economic and social justice--is what the United States stands for. But in terms of our national security interests, we have to differentiate. Each country has to be taken on its own merits. That's wise, because American foreign policy is necessarily a blend of our national security interests and our values.

The administration has stated that what's happening in the Arab world--the quest for individual liberties, human rights, broader political participation, economic and social justice--is what the U.S. stands for. But in terms of our national security interests, we have to differentiate.

When you look at Egypt, the most successful part of our dialogue with the post-Mubarak regime was our intimate ties with the Egyptian military. We used [these close ties] during the immediate fall of Mubarak to get the military in Egypt to be a vehicle of transition to a new political future. That has been done a bit haphazardly, because none of these movements in the Arab world are going to be a straight line toward democracy. Some groups or individuals may try to hijack the process. But in the long arc of history, the Middle East has most likely embarked on a better path.

What about how the administration dealt with Libya? Bahrain? Syria?

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had it absolutely right: We had no vital interests in Libya. Our European allies like France and Britain had much more important interests in Libya, and therefore we let them take the lead role. But we played a critical role in the NATO military involvement in Libya by assuring that, especially in the initial phases, the airspace over Libya would be neutralized so the rebels would have a chance.

In Bahrain, one of our most important allies, Saudi Arabia, is defending the dynasty of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the Sunni leadership there against the majority Shiite. But we must not forget that the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Manama, Bahrain. Or that the naval presence in the Persian Gulf has been there since 1949 and has assured the freedom of navigation for energy supplies to the world. That's a huge national security interest. So you have to, if you will, hedge your bets on that. That's what we've seen.

The United States cannot manage the crisis in Syria in any direct way. The international community, including the United States and Syria's neighbors, gave President Bashar al-Assad a real pass for months. The message was, "You're a young, so-called reformist president. Initiate some meaningful reforms." He talked the talk, but he did not walk the walk.

The administration wisely worked on the assumption that Turkey was best positioned to influence Assad. The Turks really tried, but eventually they threw up their hands in frustration because Assad didn't step up to the plate. Now, as long as the Alawite-led military and the Assad family and the top vested interests in the regime stick together, this could be a prolonged agony. What can change the equation is if the military breaks up or the inner circle begins to factionalize, and if the two major cities of Syria--Damascus and Aleppo--become witness to massive demonstrations. So it's just a question of time with Syria. The administration's doing the right thing in working with the international community to put whatever pressure it can on the regime and to let events take their course.

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