Skip to main content

Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Interview with Ambassador Edward Djerejian

Ambassador Edward Djerejian has served as an important thought leader for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Both as Ambassador to Syria and Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs in the 1990s, Ambassador Djerejian was a vital participant in the Arab-Israeli peace process and was also deeply involved with the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He also presented a coherent vision of how the U.S. should balance the goals of democracy in the Middle East by proclaiming in his Meridian House speech in 1992 that America would not be for “one vote, one person, one time.” This winter, as a Senior Fellow at HKS Belfer Center’s MEI, Ambassador Djerejian sat down with JMEPP editors Nick Vargish and Christian Allard to discuss pressing issues in the Arab World and the prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Christian Allard: You served at high levels of the US Government in the 1990s when it truly felt like peace was a possibility in the Middle East. How has the negotiation situation changed between the Israelis and Palestinians since that time?

Ambassador Edward Djerejian: It has changed a great deal. The last serious round of negotiations took place during the Obama Administration under Secretary John Kerry in 2014, and they didn’t result in an agreement. My time as Assistant Secretary of State in the Bush 41 Administration, I think, was one of the high points where there was meaningful progress in the negotiating scenario resulting in the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. It took very strong American leadership to get there.

Remember during that period we had the fall of the Berlin Wall and the United States emerged as the preeminent global power. We had a great deal of influence and we had smart people who were thinking strategically about how best to leverage that influence to meet our foreign policy goals. President Bush and Secretary Baker didn’t waste the large Desert Storm coalition of countries they brought together to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and used it after Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait to produce international support for a major initiative on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. It was that strategic thinking that led to the Madrid Peace Conference, to face-to-face negotiations between Israel and Arab states, to creating the “land-for-peace” framework that is a roadmap for comprehensive peace between Israelis and its Arab neighbors.

When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, I think a major flaw in our current approach is that, in many ways– and whether intentional or not– and despite official rhetorical statements, we are buying into the status quo which has become quite volatile as you can see in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories today.

We need to adopt a strategic approach to the whole Middle East region and start connecting the dots. We can take a lesson from an earlier US Administration in this respect. Take, for example, the Office of Policy Planning in the State Department after WWII. This was an office first led by George Kennan—one of the great strategic thinkers of our time (the author of containment and the famous “long telegram”). At that time individuals like George Marshall and Dean Acheson were clear in their intention to separate the strategic and operational aspects of foreign policy. They created a foreign policy formulation framework whereby officials could step back and look at the big picture and not have to engage in day-to-day crisis management. If you look at the Office of Policy Planning in the State Department today, you can clearly see there has been mission creep between the operational and strategic wings in Foggy Bottom. Over the years, I have seen the office move away from its original mandate to become more involved in operations. That is one aspect of the problem—we just aren’t thinking strategically and that applies to both Democratic and Republican Administrations.

Nick Vargish: Well, let me ask you this: how would you describe the Biden Administration’s current approach to the Middle East— and how successful of a strategy has it been?

Ambassador Edward Djerejian: Well first, let me say this, the Biden administration is not withdrawing from the Middle East. This seems to be the popular trope but when you look at where our military bases and positioning in the greater Middle East is, we have a very major military presence in the Middle East. So, to me, the claim that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East, doesn’t sound correct.

The Biden Administration is prioritizing, just like the Obama administration, Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. At the same time, energy and food security is also being prioritized given the war in Ukraine. Despite our enhanced energy security because of the US shale industry, energy is a global commodity and price fluctuations affect American energy prices as well. The importance of the Middle East in energy is a factor which highlights why the US cannot and will not withdraw from the Middle East. Moreover, we have geopolitical considerations in terms of our relationships with countries such as Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries as well as dealing with Iran. So, it’s not a question of withdrawal. This is underscored by China’s brokering the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The political landscape is shifting. I would hope to see an administration, be it Democratic or Republican, connect all these dots of crisis management and resolution, energy security, the role of Islamist parties in the Middle East, human rights, and environmental issues. We’re not connecting the dots in the Middle East in a holistic way that the pieces fit together in our approach. Once we do that, we can make more intelligent decisions on where and how to get engaged in specific areas.

Christian Allard: There has been this idea that has gained some traction where there might be a silver lining in the return of the Likud party to power on the premise that only the most hardliners have the political legitimacy to make a deal with the Palestinians. Is this a realistic interpretation of Israeli politics or is the hard right turn of Netanyahu’s coalition inherently unfavorable for the Palestinians?

Ambassador Edward Djerejian: The problem with this coalition is that while it is a Likud led government, it is in a coalition with right wing, extremist, Israeli factions, that do not support the land for peace formula or a two-state solution. These factions advocate in religious terms that Judea and Samaria is the biblical land of Israel and that Israel has a right to these territories, that the settlement enterprise has to be expanded and actually reinforced, which cuts down further the territory of any future Palestinian state. That undermines the hope that Netanyahu could work for a viable settlement. Netanyahu has recently stated his formula of “peace for peace.” I didn’t hear land for peace. He is in many ways captive to the very hardline views of the religious parties in his coalition. That will seriously inhibit anything he can do, even if he wanted to, which is a major question for peace in my eyes. Netanyahu keeps saying that he has his “hands on the wheel” when it comes to managing this new political coalition, but I don’t think he has his foot on the brakes.

The situation in Israel is dire. Israel is an open democracy but is being torn apart as we can see with these massive demonstrations against what this coalition wants to do on the rule of law and how they are trying to undermine the role of the Supreme Court in Israel and Israel’s democracy in terms of checks and balances. These demonstrators are also connecting the crisis to the Palestinian issue. This new Israeli Government is working against any real progress with the Palestinians. The other side of the equation is the weakness of the Palestinian Authority. It is facing a number of issues. They haven’t had an election in 15 years and, therefore, there is a gap between the leadership and what the Palestinian polity thinks. And, unfortunately, there is systemic corruption. There’s also the division between Hamas and Fatah as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This is not very conducive toward working toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Christian Allard: From the Palestinian pespective, who are their international allies and advocates? Some of their traditional ones, Jordan, Egypt, they’ve long made peace with Israel. The Gulf seems to be prioritizing security and commerce over the Palestinian issue. Does this lack of an overt ally relegate them to being a second or a third order priority in the region?

Ambassador Edward Djerejian: The Palestinian cause is still an important factor in Arab politics and the “Arab Street” despite the ups and downs of effective support by individual Arab states. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 initiated by Saudi Arabia is still an important landmark despite the Abraham Accords. The Abraham Accords are transactional agreements between Israel, UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Note that Saudi Arabia has not joined these accords. Let’s see if some of these Arab states translate their relationship with Israel into real support for the Palestinians and an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The ball is in their court.

The Palestinians get support in monetary terms from the Gulf states which has continued. And they get support for their cause internationally. If you look at the United Nations, there is an overwhelming majority of states that support Palestine. Thus, they do definitely have political support. But they must get their own house in order to be more effective. That’s one very important factor, and then they need to provide a coherent strategy that outsiders could support. Right now, it’s ambiguous.

Nick Vargish: I’d like to end on a bit of a different note and talk about the ongoing crises (plural) occurring in Lebanon right now. Lebanon is currently experiencing multiple catastrophes simultaneously. Beyond the massive liquidity crisis, we now have a currency crisis resulting from the Lebanese pound becoming unpegged from the US dollar. Even over the course of the last five years, Lebanon has really degraded in a serious way, both politically and economically. What do you believe it would take to get Lebanon out of this quagmire?

Ambassador Edward Djerejian: I started my career in Lebanon as a young diplomat in 1965. Back then, Beirut was a beautiful city—it was the political, cultural, financial and espionage center of the Arab world. There was a sizable middle class. But that image of Lebanon and Beirut was, in many ways, a fantasy. I remember we once sent a telegram back to Washington saying that “if you scratch the seemingly pristine backhand of Lebanon, you will find a very feudal society that has the potential to eat away at the country’s stability and national interests.” That proved to be correct many times over when the Civil War began in 1975.

What we’re seeing now is a freefall. And the cause of this freefall can be blamed on institutional rot. Can you imagine that someone like Nabih Berri is still the Speaker of Parliament? He was there when I was in Lebanon in the 1960s! The systematic corruption present in public institutions is harrowing. The way they’ve siphoned off money and funneled it to the favored, wealthier classes is criminal.

A major problem is that not one of the sectarian factions and their leaders want to give up power. The elephant in the room is Hezbollah which is the only other group in Lebanon that is allowed to bear arms and have its own militia according to the Taif Agreements in 1989. The right to bear arms should be the monopoly of the Lebanese Armed Forces alone. Elections for a new parliament and the election of a new president are essential first steps to initiate constitutional reforms that will end the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics.