U.S. Advice To Israelis: Don’t Start Syria Talks

By Ori Nir, With Reporting From Jta.

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration recently advised the Israeli government against taking up the offer of Syrian President Bashar Assad to resume peace negotiations, Israeli and American diplomats in Washington confirmed.

The administration, according to sources, voiced several concerns regarding Assad’s recent public claims that he is willing to resume peace negotiations with Israel. The main concern, sources said, is that negotiations with Syria, which have slim chances of yielding an agreement anytime soon, would divert attention from the Israeli-Palestinian track and impede efforts to implement the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

Another reason for America’s opposition to Israeli-Syrian negotiations now, according to sources, is the desire to keep pressuring Syria to do more in the war on terrorism. Administration officials “want to have their own Syria policy, in which they can get [Syrian] concessions on Iraq,” said a Washington activist with close connections to the administration.

During a press briefing on January 20, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, acknowledged that the Bush administration was “at first lukewarm” about his country’s peace overtures. But, he said, after concluding that Damascus is sincere, the Bush administration now is supporting the Syrian calls for peace talks.

“I am optimistic. I believe that the United States will engage more and more positively vis-à-vis the peace offensive of Syria,” Moustapha said.

Israeli and American sources in Washington, however, said that Jerusalem is receiving mixed signals from the administration. Several State Department officials have advised Israel to explore Syria’s intentions and consider resuming talks, but others are warning the Sharon government against immediately engaging in negotiations with Damascus, the sources told the Forward.

Prime Minister Sharon seems quite happy to comply with the American camp that is counseling against talks. He has continued to insist that Syria is not serious about peace and has accused Damascus of proposing dialogue with Israel in a gambit to improve relations with the United States.

The administration has been demanding in recent months that Syria work to stop the anti-American insurgency in Iraq. In response to perceived Syrian intransigence, the administration decided to drop its opposition to a congressional bill that imposes sanctions on Syria. The legislation received overwhelming support in both houses of Congress late last year and was signed into law by President Bush. Since then, Syria has been trying to mend its relations with Washington.

At Tuesday’s rare press conference, Moustapha discussed what he described as his frustrating efforts to improve Syria’s image in America. Still, he insisted, the Syrian “peace offensive” was not a public-relations campaign, but a sincere drive “to resolve [its conflict with Israel] through peace negotiations.”

“The chance is still there; we have a historic chance for peace — let’s engage,” the ambassador said. “Syria is serious — it takes two to tango.”

Moustapha emphasized that Syria supports the Arab League’s peace plan, which offers Israel a comprehensive peace that includes “normalization of relations” with all the Arab states “in return for our occupied territories and a free, sovereign Palestinian state.”

While Sharon consistently has voiced skepticism toward the Syrian proposal, other Israeli officials have been more positive about Assad’s overtures. Israeli President Moshe Katsav publicly invited Assad to visit Jerusalem, and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advised Sharon to take advantage of Syria’s current weakness to negotiate a favorable deal with Damascus.

In contrast, Sharon generally has been dismissive of the Syrian leader’s advances. The prime minister and his aides have accused Assad of talking a conciliatory line, while continuing to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian terrorist leaders in Damascus.

An Israeli soldier was killed Monday along the Israel-Lebanon border by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile fired at an Israeli bulldozer that was defusing mines. Israeli officials placed responsibility for the attack on Syria, which is the main power broker in Lebanon and a financial supporter of Hezbollah. In response to the killing, Israeli jets bombed Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon.

Also on January 19, Sharon was quoted as telling a Knesset committee that once Assad stops supporting terrorism, “we would be happy to negotiate with him on anything without preconditions. We are interested in peace with Syria, but not in return to empty words which are intended to lift the pressure from Syria.”

At his press conference, Moustapha told reporters that his government had closed the Damascus offices of Palestinian organizations, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But Israeli and American intelligence officials say that Palestinian terrorist leaders still act freely in Syria. Asked if Assad is willing to emulate the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat by traveling to Israel in an effort to convince Israelis of his sincerity, Moustapha said that Syria is not interested in “gimmicks.” He said, however, “our team of negotiators is ready to go wherever it is suitable to meet their Israeli counterparts.”

On several points, Moustapha appeared to demonstrate more flexibility than Syria has in the past. He said that Damascus was willing to resume negotiations “without any conditions.” But, he added, it would be a waste of precious time to restart negotiations from scratch, rather than at the point reached by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and the late Assad.

“I am not saying that Syria is adamant that everything that was agreed on in the last round of talks is a holy Bible,” Moustapha said.

On the question of whether Syria still would insist on a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Moustapha said, “Let us respect the international legitimacy and U.N. resolutions — we have the Madrid terms of reference of complete peace for complete withdrawal — and this is our declared position. It has always been. However, let such details be discussed around the negotiating table.”

Moustapha said that Syria was struggling to repair its image in the United States and to convince Americans that it is serious about wanting peace with Israel.

“The more we talk about peace, the more we are attacked,” he said. But now “we are trying to be as clear and loud as possible here in Washington. … We do realize the importance of addressing the American body politic and American public opinion.”

Moustapha said that he recently met with Jewish communal leaders at the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, when he was bombarded with charges and accusations about what he characterized as “Syria’s bad behavior.” The federation’s president, John Fishel, said that the grievances mainly had to do with antisemitic statements allegedly made by senior Syrian officials.

The ambassador said he told his hosts that as he left his office in Washington, his secretary brought him a thick file listing Syria’s complaints about Israeli behavior, but he decided not to bring it to the meeting. “I told the leaders of the Los Angeles Jewish community, ‘I did not come to tell you how bad you are and you telling us how bad we are. I came to have a constructive conversation,’” Moustapha said. “This is our message.”

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