No Talks, No Peace


August 21, 1997

Forwarded message: From: DUMONT@XAVIER.XU.EDU

There is a clear message in the recent attacks and counterattacks in Lebanon and northern Israel: The United States is making a dangerous mistake by focusing its efforts in the Middle East peace process solely on Israel and the Palestinians, without also involving Syria and Lebanon. Since the Middle East peace conference in Madrid in 1991, the peace process between Syria and Israel has moved ever so slowly. Indeed, since negotiations broke off at the Wye Plantation in Washington in February 1996, there has been virtually no movement. Throughout this stalemate, the United States has done little to restart the talks. Now, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright considers making her first official visit to the region next month, Syria's President, Hafez al-Assad, who wields great influence in Lebanon, is sending a warning that it is time to renew those talks. It is simply not enough to try to calm the current tensions, as Secretary Albright did yesterday by phoning Syria's Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, to urge maximum restraint by all parties. Acts of violence and terrorism will continue on Israel's northern border with Lebanon as long as Hezbollah and extremist Palestinian groups enjoy freedom of movement in southern Lebanon. Given Syria's strong position in Lebanon and its relationship with Iran -- Hezbollah's major patron -- American diplomacy cannot afford to ignore Damascus. Indeed, these latest incidents will also likely hurt the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That is exactly what happened in 1993, when Israel's deportation of Hamas members caused a crisis. In order to restore the climate for peace talks, Secretary of State Warren Christopher went to the region to oversee complex negotiations to resettle the deportees. Without the United States actively brokering a peace deal, Syria and Israel will probably never come to an agreement. For Syria, negotiations with Israel are not only about land, peace and security. When President Assad agreed to the Madrid peace formula in 1991, he expected the United States to act as an "honest broker" and mediator. Syria is not interested in an Oslo-type peace process, in which the Americans were excluded. For President Assad, the peace process should serve two purposes: It should settle land and security issues with Israel and it should lead to American recognition of Syria's role in the region. Given the past cycles of violence between Israel and Lebanon, the Clinton Administration should not be surprised at the escalation that has followed the shelling of the southern Lebanese city of Sidon by the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army on Monday. It must heed the warning signs of the renewed violence.

It is time for the United States to not only take the lead in restarting talks between Israel and Syria, but to also become an active mediator, putting its own proposals on the table. Otherwise, peace in the region will remain in jeopardy.

Edward P. Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker 3d Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, was United States Ambassador to Syria from 1988 to 1991 and Ambassador to Israel from 1993 to 1994.