A procession of senior U.S. diplomats and officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, has traveled to the Middle East, including Jerusalem, in the past few weeks in hopes of defusing recent violence between Israel and Palestine. Inside Israel, protesters continue to demonstrate against a plan by the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his sixth term, to weaken the nation’s judiciary power and independence.
To better understand what’s happening, the Gazette spoke with Edward P. Djerejian, a career Foreign Service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria and as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the Clinton, Bush I, and Reagan administrations before retiring to lead the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Djerejian is currently a senior fellow at the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Edward P. Djerejian
GAZETTE: The turmoil that has engulfed Israel since the recent election has alarmed people inside and outside the country. What has been happening?
DJEREJIAN: Israelis have elected the most right-wing coalition government in Israel’s history, headed by Netanyahu. This new government has initiated policies and proposals that, both on the domestic front and toward the Palestinians, have caused a great deal of internal debate and division in Israel and widespread public demonstrations. Externally and especially in Washington, major questions have arisen concerning the impact of the new government’s policies on Israel’s democratic system and the Palestinian issue.
GAZETTE: What are U.S. officials and other Middle East nations most worried about?
DJEREJIAN: One common concern is that neighboring countries and the United States do not have any interest in an escalation of violence in the occupied territories. Further exacerbation of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and with Hamas in Gaza, could culminate in regional instability. The Biden administration wants to avoid a flare-up of tensions in the Middle East, especially with the war in Ukraine and with other major domestic and foreign-policy issues it has to deal with, including China. So the first goal of the U.S. and some in the region is to manage the immediate crisis. The visits of high-level American officials are an exercise in conflict management, they are not an exercise in conflict resolution of the major problem — the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the intermittent violence and instability that stem from the status quo. Unfortunately, a peace agreement today is elusive for many reasons.
Another serious concern is the weakness of the Palestinian Authority. This is also an important factor in the equation. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is of a certain age and faces political challenges from within Fatah and especially from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel is under increasing critical scrutiny. And the promise of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian Authority, to achieve forward movement toward a peace agreement with Israel has not been realized.