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Djerejian Resigns As Envoy to Israel; Move Catches Jewish Groups by Surprise

The resignation of Edward Djerejian from his post as U.S. ambassador to Israel has caught Jewish groups by surprise.

Djerejian’s announcement that he is ending a 32-year foreign service career to head a newly formed policy institute comes less than six months after he assumed his post.

Djerejian’s nomination to the post was widely hailed by Jewish groups last year. A former ambassador to Syria, his appointment was seen as an indication of the importance the Clinton administration attached to advancing the peace negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus.

The announcement came in a statement Thursday from Rice University, where Djerejian will head the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, named for former Secretary of State James Baker. He is scheduled to take up the post in August.

Djerejian was in Jerusalem with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who was concluding a round of shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Syria. He was expected at Rice, located in Houston, for a formal public announcement on Friday.

Before becoming ambassador to Israel, Djerejian had been assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs under both President Clinton and President Bush. It was in this position that he played a key role in promoting the Middle East peace process — perhaps more so than in his current post.

RESIGNATION MAY REFLECT DISSATISFACTION

One Jewish organizational official speculated that Djerejian’s resignation may represent dissatisfaction with getting shut out of the negotiations with Syria, where Christopher has taken the lead. But it was unlikely to reflect a policy difference with Christopher, according to the official.

“His role was probably not what he believed it should have been,” said this official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

By contrast, Djerejian’s counterpart in Washington, Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, not only heads the Israeli delegation to the bilateral Israeli-Syrian peace talks in Washington, but has also frequently returned to Jerusalem for consultations when the locus of negotiations shifted back to the region.

There has also been speculation in Washington that Djerejian is preparing to serve as a policy adviser to Baker, who may be contemplating a bid for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination.

In New York, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he found Djerejian’s resignation “very surprising.

“Djerejian told us often how much he looked forward to this position (as ambassador to Israel). For much of his career it was a goal of his,” said Hoenlein.

“This may represent an opportunity he couldn’t pass up,” he said of the new position.

Hoenlein described Djerejian as “a good friend of Israel,” who was very helpful regarding Syrian Jewry during his Damascus posting and maintained a close relationship with the Conference of Presidents while working in the State Department.

“It’s a real loss, because he was one of the few diplomats who had won the respect of the Arabs and particularly Syria, as well as Israel and the Jewish community,” said Thomas Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, a Washington group supportive of the present peace process.

“With the Syrian track now at the top of the agenda, his expertise was particularly valued. During times of negotiations, what Israel needs most are real negotiators, not just cheerleaders. That’s why men like Djerejian, who can work effectively with both sides, are so valuable right now,” said Smerling.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Deborah Kalb in Washington.)

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