Former Aipac Head Leads Push for American-Syrian Rapprochement

By Marc Perelman

Published August 28, 2008, issue of September 05, 2008.
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Thomas Dine spent years transforming the American Israel Public Affairs Committee into a Washington powerhouse, but now he has embarked on a very different mission: building a bridge between the United States and Israel’s nemesis Syria.

Dine is currently serving as the head of an American-Syrian working group set up early last year by the organization Search for Common Ground. It comprises eight high-level figures from each country, including former American ambassadors and advisers to the Syrian regime.

After holding two meetings in Syria over the past year, the group organized a visit to the United States in late July for three of its Syrian members, during which they met with lawmakers, think-tankers and media outlets in Washington, Houston and Los Angeles.

“This is a classical track-two mechanism where you have governments at loggerheads and the private sector steps in to try to bring them closer,” Dine told the Forward in his first public discussion of his role in the outreach effort.

While Israel and Syria have been engaged in peace negotiations via Turkey for several months, and Damascus has recently mended fences with several European countries, the Bush administration has expressed misgivings about Syria’s effort to break out of its diplomatic isolation. While many observers believe that no change will take place before America’s next administration settles in, Dine and his comrades are concerned that such a void could lead to more tensions in the region.

Dine said that the working group had laid out a “strategic plan” to bring the bilateral relationship “back to normal” within the next year, which will be the time needed for a new administration to get familiar with the Middle East terrain. In addition to organizing meetings here and in Syria, where another one is planned at the end of the year, each side is briefing its government.

The Syrian delegation to the United States was composed of economist Samir Seifan, political analyst Sami Moubayed and Samir al-Taqi, a think-tank director who advises the government and has been involved in unofficial peace negotiations with Israel in recent months. Among the American members of the working group are Samuel Lewis, former ambassador to Israel, and Theodore Kattouf, former Syrian ambassador. Also included are former Rep. Steve Bartlett of Texas, former Clinton administration Middle East adviser Robert Malley and John Marks, president and founder of Search for Common Ground.

The initiative has not been all smooth going. The Syrian delegation was supposed to include a close aide to President Bashar al-Assad and to hold a meeting with the State Department’s top Middle East official. But Riad Daoudi, a legal adviser to the foreign ministry, stayed in Baghdad, and the delegation did not get to see David Welch, assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.

Dine said that Daoudi canceled the meeting because he had to attend a briefing about Israeli-Syrian negotiations in Damascus. The State Department said the encounter was canceled due to scheduling conflicts.

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, offers another explanation: “Syria wanted to use Dine to open up doors in Washington, and he was supposed to get a meeting between Daoudi and Welch but could not deliver.”

Dine disputed that assertion and stressed that he had been asked to come on board not by the Syrians, but by the head of Search for Common Ground. He denied that the Syrian government had been involved in the initiative, although he acknowledged discussing the schedule of the visit to America with Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, who held a private dinner reception with the working group during its stay in Washington.

Dine also disputed the notion that he had been enlisted in the effort because of his Jewish ties, although his previous role at Aipac has been mentioned in the Arab press and, as he acknowledged, “the Syrians keep introducing me as the former head of Aipac.”

“I am who I am. I don’t hide my Jewishness, but I do this because I know people in Washington and because I am committed to re-establishing the U.S. position in the region and getting back on track with Syria,” he said.

Dine is a veteran Washington Jewish insider who has alternated between government jobs and stints in Jewish organizations. After serving as a Congressional aide in the late 1970s, he became Aipac’s executive director in 1980, transforming the organization into a major player in Washington politics. He departed in 1993 to work for the United States Agency for International Development before becoming president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a position he held from 1997 until 2005. He then became CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, which he left last year. Nowadays he is an adviser to Search for Common Ground as well as the dovish Israel Policy Forum.

To Landis, the administration’s backtracking on the Welch meeting suggests that “Washington is not ready to become a part of the discussion, which means that the Israel-Syria talks will not be able to reach a decisive phase.”

While Dine agrees that the administration was indeed showing little support for the Israel-Syria negotiations, he claims that major progress has been made.

“The two sides have never been this close,” he said. “We are reaching a key strategic moment.”

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