Ex-Envoy Lays Out U.S. Options in Middle East

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So far, the United States is keeping a diplomatic distance from the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. Can the U.S. do anything to defuse the situation? Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Syria, tells Michele Norris there are options available.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Joining me to talk about how the United States might help diffuse the crisis, is Edward Djerejian. He's a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and to Syria, and he's now director of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy, at Rice University in Houston. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. EDWARD DJEREJIAN (former Ambassador; Israel, Syria): My pleasure.

BLOCK: Ambassador, what immediate steps do you think the United States could take or should take?

Mr. DJEREJIAN: Well, I think immediately, the United States should take the major leadership role in the international community, to call for an immediate cessation of all hostilities on all fronts. Then to facilitate the establishment of indirect contacts between and amongst the parties, so that political arrangements can be made to diffuse the crisis.

That might, very well, have to include a exchange of Israeli soldiers for Palestinian and Arab prisoners; some commitments on the part of the Lebanese government, with whatever support they can get from Syria and Iran, to have the Lebanese border with Israel made into a safe zone. In other words, to get assurances, that border will not be used for rocket attacks against Israeli targets.

I think it's along those parameters, that immediate crisis management is required.

BLOCK: You said that the United States should call for an immediate cessation of hostilities. The president has not gone that far, he has said Israel has the right to defend herself. He has not joined in Lebanon's call for a ceasefire. Do you think he should be going farther, then?

Mr. DJEREJIAN: Yeah, well certainly Israel has the right to defend itself, but at the same time, the bloodletting and the fighting has to stop, because there's a serious risk of escalation, even beyond Lebanon. There's speculation in Israeli commentary, that perhaps the next step in escalation, can be targeting Syria, because Syria obviously supports Hezbollah, Hamas - which has a presence in Damascus - and the fact that Palestinian Islamic Jihad has a presence in Syria. And, that all of these groups in Syria, supported by Iran. So one must not be too complacent, that this military situation can escalate into a wider conflict. I think it can be contained, but in order for it to be contained, the international community has to play an important role. And that's why I would look at a call for an immediate ceasefire on all fronts.

BLOCK: Do you think, given the influence of Iran and Syria on Hezbollah, that it would be time for the United States to sit down with those countries and try to get some concessions?

Mr. DJEREJIAN: You know, I come from this diplomatic school that you negotiate conflict-resolution and peace, with your enemies, not particularly with your friends. It is wise, in whatever form they may take - they may be discrete, they may covert, they may be indirect - but that we should be talking with the major players. We can use intermediaries, we can do it directly; that's a policy decision. But my answer to your question is yes, we should be talking.

BLOCK: Do you think that the U.S. involvement in Iraq, now, is complicating this in a fundamental way? In other words, that its influence as a possible broker of a deal, is lessened because of our involvement in Iraq?

Mr. DJEREJIAN: I don't think that our involvement in Iraq necessarily prevents the United States, and especially the president, of standing tall to get a major international effort to manage this crisis. It's a question of political will, and really getting an important segment of the international community behind our efforts. It can be done. But there's no question, that our heavy involvement in Iraq, has been a diversion. And I believe that, unfortunately, the agenda for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has unfortunately been put on a back burner, over the last couple of years.

BLOCK: Ambassador Djerejian, thanks very much for being with us.

Ambassador DJEREJIAN: You're very welcome.

BLOCK: Edward Djerejian is a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Syria. He's now director of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy, at Rice University in Houston.

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