Baker aide: We aim to help Israel

Exclusive: Djerejian hails Blair's planned ME visit as start of new initiative.

baker, james 298 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
baker, james 298 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The James Baker-Lee Hamilton report does not constitute a bid to force Israel into concessions in order to solve the Iraq crisis, one of the study's principal advisers insisted to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "That is not the thrust of the report," said Edward Djerejian, although he added that he was "not surprised" that some in Israel regarded it in that light. The aim, said Djerejian in a phone interview, was to "test the intentions of Israel's neighbors." Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria and Israel who heads the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy, one of the think-tanks sponsoring the Iraq Study Group, said the report amounts to a call for "muscular diplomacy" to achieve a "successful outcome" in Iraq and continue the process toward comprehensive Middle East peace that was initiated at the Madrid international conference in 1991, when Baker was secretary of state to the first president Bush. The situation in the region "cries out for a comprehensive solution," he said. Djerejian said Thursday's announcement that British Prime Minister Tony Blair would be traveling to the region seemed to signal the first endorsement of the report's call for a new diplomatic offensive. At their joint press conference after talks at the White House, President George W. Bush said Blair would be flying out to help the two sides overcome "the obstacles standing before the aim of both nations," which he defined as "two states living in peace side by side." Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the report's linkage between US problems in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli issue and said he was confident the Bush administration would not press Israel into opening direct talks with Syria, as advocated by the study group. Djerejian said the report was not designed to pressure Israel and that "no one in the group was advocating pressing Israel. What we are advocating is a strategic diplomatic approach to shift the dynamic." The ambassador, who said he had held "informal contacts with Israeli friends" in working on the report, said its call on the US to engage with Iran should not be construed as suggesting a new American tolerance for Iran's nuclear program. The fact that the report stated that the issue of Iran's nuclear programs should continue to be handled by the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, he said, signalled that "we didn't want the critical issue of Iran's nuclear intentions" to be perceived as a possible "quid pro quo in our demands for Iran to help on Iraq." At his press conference with Blair, Bush appeared to firmly reject the study's call for direct US engagement with both Iran and Syria. If the Iranians wanted to talk to the US, the president said, they would first have to "verifiably suspend their enrichment process." As for Syria, it would need to "stop destabilizing the Saniora government, stop allowing money and arms to cross your border into Iraq [and] don't provide a safe haven for terrorist groups." In short, said Bush, the two nations would have to stop fostering conflict and start pressing for peace. Djerejian said it would take time for the administration "to absorb the report and put it into perspective,' but insisted that it represented the sole viable, bipartisan path to achieving American interests in the Middle East. It charted "the only way to a successful outcome - success being an Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself and sustain itself," he said. Overall, the study seeks a move "away from conflict management and toward conflict resolution," said Djerejian. The latest conflicts between Israel and Hamas and Israel and Hizbullah, "and the damage done to both Israel and Lebanon," he went on, had demonstrated again that "there is no military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict" and that there "must be a political solution." Said Djerejian: "Israel, with all its [superior] regional military power, cannot dictate peace; there has to be a political dialogue. Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with all their violence and terrorism, cannot destroy Israel." What was needed was "a new diplomatic offensive" that "must include talking to countries like Syria" - testing Damascus's political will. And there would be "no strategic buy-in by Syria," unless its demands, including that for the Golan Heights, were part of the picture." The report itself calls on Israel to "return the Golan Heights" in the context of "a full and secure peace agreement." "We recognize that dealing with Syria and Iran is controversial," Djerejian said. "We suggest incentives and disincentives with both Syria and Iran... "Syria expressed to us a willingness to engage, and to engage with Israel. This has to be tested. If we can make progress with Syria, that opens the door to possible constructive Syrian action on Hizbullah, Hamas, Lebanon and Islamic Jihad" and possibly to driving a wedge between Syria and Iran. "There is nothing to be lost by the United States engaging Syria and testing its intentions," he argued. "The United States is not giving anything away in such a dialogue. If there are positive results, that could lead to a constructive dialogue that would help Israel on its northern front and with respect to Hamas and Islamic Jihad." As for Iran, Djerejian said it "should be asked to assume its responsibilities. If it refuses to do so, it would demonstrate its rejectionist approach which could lead to its isolation... Iran's refusal to cooperate on Iraq would diminish its prospects of engaging with the United States in the broader dialogue it seeks."