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Djerejian: Land for Peace Approach is the Only Sustainable Formula
Published in AL HAYAT on 18 - 06 - 2009

Washington - As the Obama administration enters the final round of its consultations on the Peace Process and sets the pace for resuming negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, U.S. career diplomat Edward Djerejian who served in eight administrations, weighs in on Washington's efforts especially those related to Syria in achieving peace. Djerejian, the author of “Danger and Opportunity”, stresses in an interview with Al-Hayat that the Palestinian track should remain the focal target of the Peace Process, and cautions against substituting the land for peace approach with other “unsustainable” formulas.
-Envoy George Mitchell made a recent visit to Syria, how important is this visit?
Envoy's Mitchell visit to Syria demonstrates that President Barack Obama is intent in pursuing a comprehensive peace settlement not only on the Israeli-Palestinian front, but also on the Israeli- Syrian, and Israel-Lebanese fronts. This is a very important aspect of his ability to succeed by recognizing the interconnectivity between all these tracks. Nevertheless, the Israeli Palestinian track should be the focal target of these efforts, because of the centrality of that issue. But at the same time engaging Syria in a dialogue on may issues not only the Peace Process but also on its serious regional influence especially vis a vis groups such as Hizballah and also on its relation with Iran.
-What incentives can the US offer to Syria to change its behavior. We have seen engagement in the past, even during the Bush administration that did not produce results. What is different this time?
I think what the Syrians are really interested in is to test President Obama's proposition that he is prepared to enter into a strategic dialogue with adversarial regimes. The Syrian government is interested in a dialogue that is not exclusively focused on one issue but incorporates a whole set of issues, including the Israeli Syrian prospect for peace, cooperation on combating terrorism, exchanging perspectives on Lebanon and securing the border with Iraq. Such dialogue will help in determining the nature of the bilateral relations between the two countries.
-Do you think the Syrian government is interested in achieving peace or they're more inclined to be part of a process?
In my experience with the Syrian government starting with former President Hafez Assad and in my meetings with current President Bashar Assad, Damascus has continued to adopt a policy line choosing Peace as a “strategic option”. What that means is that Syria is prepared to engage in the peace talks. This was most recently demonstrated in the indirect Israeli-Syrian talks mediated by Turkey. There is no question in my mind that Syria wants to engage with Israel on Peace talks. The Syrians have also indicated on a level as high as President Assad that when those talks get serious they want the U.S. to participate in these talks.
-How important is the U.S. participation?
I was present at the Madrid peace conference (1991) and helped in developing the peace framework it generated. I've also dealt with the subject matter directly as: ambassador to Syria (1989-1991), Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs (1991-1993), and as ambassador to Israel (1993-1994). It was clear at that point that the Madrid framework was comprehensive involving all the parties, and since then the Israeli-Syrian talks have undergone many periods of engagement -some direct some indirect- under many administrations in Washington and many governments in Israel. There is a legacy of negotiations on which many of key issues of land, peace and access of water have been dealt with and in detail. It is not an exaggeration when some say that eighty percent of the issues have been dealt with. What is needed now is to reengage, and to have the political will of the Israeli and the Syrian and the U.S. governments to conclude these talks.
- With eighty percent of the problems being dealt with, would you advocate a Syria first option?
Well, I wouldn't advocate a Syria first option. All tracks should go at the same pace, and I am against the “either-or” option. The Palestinian issue remains the core political problem and if it is ignored it would be difficult for any Arab state to conclude a peace agreement without some way forward on Palestinian track.
-Would you advise President Obama to put together a plan, an American plan to break the stalemate, or maybe call for a regional conference for peace?
The way that the Obama administration is moving on process is smart. In having Senator George Mitchell as an emissary, they have a superb negotiator who is doing very hard work to bring the Israeli and Palestinian issues into focus. In determining exactly how to proceed on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it is smart to analyze the situation before you start acting and that is exactly what the administration is doing. I think they are in a period of gestation, where they are developing what would become their negotiating strategy. The strategy I think will be focused on the Palestinian track but will also accommodate whatever movement can be made on the Israeli-Syrian track. There is some speculation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, given his narrow political coalition and difficulties he has politically on the issue of Settlements in West Bank and Jerusalem that he might choose to move on Syrian track. That is an argument that has been often made. But whatever he decides to do, it cannot be at the expense of Palestinian negotiations.
-On Iran, could the Syrian-Iranian alliance stand in the way of brokering a peace agreement? Or on the flip side, could brokering peace with Syria peel it away from Iran?
I think that the Syrians and the Iranians have an understanding that Syria will pursue its national interests in the Arab Israeli conflict which is to regain the Golan Heights. For example the Iranians did not make any noise over the talks mediated by Turkey, and I think this what will happen if talks become more direct or with the U.S. That does not mean that the relationship will break or collapse, there will still be a relationship.
-What about the strategic shift for peace that the Israelis are asking Syrian government to make, not on the land for peace approach, but a strategic shift so Syria stops supporting Hizballah and Hamas?
Any “peace for peace” approach is doomed to failure. Arab-Israeli negotiations have to be conducted on the basis of “land for peace” and based on two UNSCR 242 and 338. That is the framework for Madrid and that remains the only valid framework for making peace. Nevertheless, the results of moving forward on land for peace negotiations will have to accommodate the issues of Hamas, Hizballah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and a whole range of issues but the focal point for any formula is land for peace, any other approach is simply not sustainable

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