|A message from the founding director
The past year has marked a transformative shift in the Middle East and North Africa, as protestors in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen took to the streets calling for political reform. Today, four of those countries have different leaders, but events in Syria have taken a very violent turn, and peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains elusive.
Recently, I traveled to the region, and I would like to share some of my firsthand impressions with you. In late January and early February, I participated in several panel discussions at the 12th annual Herzliya Conference in Israel. The conference, which is organized by the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, focuses on Israel's long-term future and related strategy and issues, including policymaking.
During an interview with IDC radio, I was asked about Israel's prospects for peace with the Palestinians. In my view, Israel should do everything possible to get to the negotiating table with the Palestinian Authority's leadership. Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can do much to influence positively the course of events of the Arab Awakening. Moving forward on peace talks with the Palestinians could help avoid worst-case scenarios with the Palestinian street.
I also discussed future policy research projects with Baker Institute fellows Yair Hirschfeld, Ph.D., and Samih Al-Abed, Ph.D., and exchanged views with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. While both men acknowledged the difficulties in the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, each reiterated that there was no better alternative to direct, face-to-face negotiations and a two-state solution.
In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot (later cited in Al Arabiya), correspondent Smadar Peri asked me about the situation in Syria and my discussions with President Bashar al-Assad in 2003. I recalled that, in one meeting with the Syrian leader, I inquired about the plans he once had to institute political and economic reforms in Syria, devoting more attention to citizens, and offering them more freedom and rights. He left me with the clear impression that he was in no rush to actually carry out meaningful reforms as has been painfully evident in his regime's actions in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Al-Assad's decision to defy the opposition and crack down with an iron fist has prolonged the protests and deepened the cycle of violence. Yet, he retains the support of some Syrian elites and the military, which has successfully dislodged, at least for now, the armed opposition in Deraa, Homs and Idlib. Meanwhile, the political opposition is riven by internal dissension. So far, it and the Free Syrian Army have been unable to organize a broader-based movement that can remove the regime from power.
The United States and its allies have rightly resisted calls for military intervention, to date. Syria's military capabilities are significant, including air defense, ballistic missiles, and biological and chemical weapons. Therefore, any outside military intervention would be problematic, to say the least. The U.S. administration clearly desires an orderly and managed political transition to bring about a more representative government in Syria. However, given the complexity of the situation, the United States cannot, by itself, determine the outcome of events. But the U.S. administration must start planning for how it is going to deal with certain worse-case scenarios and, looking ahead, how to engage the political forces that will evolve in Syria in the wake of this crisis.
In late February, I traveled to Doha, where the Baker Institute Science and Technology Policy Program co-hosted the Qatar International Conference on Stem Cell Science and Policy. This special event brought together top scientists, including Nobel laureate David Baltimore (who will speak at the Baker Institute on April 12), to discuss the latest developments in this exciting but controversial scientific field. Twelve Rice University undergraduates also traveled to Qatar where they participated in the second student colloquium of the Baker Institute Public Diplomacy & Global Policymaking in the 21st Century Program. The interaction between the Rice students and students from Qatar University was truly dynamic and impressive.
Edward P. Djerejian
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The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan public policy think tank located on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas. The institute's distinguished fellows and scholars research and collaborate with experts from academia, government, the media, business and private organizations on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy.