Washington - As the Israeli debate over engaging Damascus intensifies, several influential American lawmakers have defied the White House with visits to Syria and calls for talks between the United States and the Baathist regime.
This week, the issue heated up in Israel as the country’s Mossad spy agency and military intelligence sparred over the wisdom of reopening a diplomatic channel with Syria. So far, the Israeli government has turned down the calls from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for renewed peace talks, citing mainly the Bush administration’s policy of isolating Damascus.
In the past two weeks, however, three Democrats — Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Bill Nelson of Florida — and one Jewish Republican, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, visited Damascus despite strong criticism from the Bush administration, which opposes any rapprochement with Syria.
Specter, who met with Assad on Tuesday, held a news conference in Damascus in which he said he heard from the Syrian president “an interest in negotiating with Israel to try to bring a peaceful settlement to the Syrian-Israeli dispute under the U.N. doctrine of land-for-peace.” The Pennsylvania senator, known for his pro-Israel views and longtime support for talks with Syria, also asserted that the United States could play a positive role in reviving peace talks between Israel and Syria. In their meeting in Damascus, Assad told Specter that Syria is interested in convening a regional conference of the countries neighboring Iraq to discuss possible solutions for resolving the crisis there.
While Specter steered clear of directly criticizing the administration’s policy of isolating Syria, his visit to Damascus is seen in Washington as significant, making him the only Republican to openly defy the White House’s call for lawmakers to refrain from going to Syria and meeting Assad.
The Democratic senators who met the Syrian president during the past two weeks have made it clear that they see their talks with Assad as part of the push for the implementation of the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s recommendations, which included a call on the United States to engage with Syria on issues regarding the situation in Iraq and a renewal of the Israeli-Arab peace process.
“I feel quite confident in saying this was a conversation worth having and that the administration ought to pursue it,” Kerry said last week after his meeting with Assad. “It’s worth following up on a number of avenues.”
Nelson, set to become a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered a similar assessment after meeting with Assad a week earlier. “I think it is a crack in the door,” Nelson said, “and it is for discussions to continue.”
The White House tried to discourage American lawmakers from visiting the Syrian president, arguing that it would send a mixed message to the Assad regime and be seen as a prize by the Syrian president, who Bush administration officials say has defied American demands to close Syria’s border with Iraq and to stop supporting terrorism there.
Ahmed Salkini, press secretary of the Syrian Embassy in Washington, told the Forward that the stream of senators heading to Damascus reflects American lawmakers’ dissatisfaction with the administration’s policy. “They recognize that the current policy of the U.S. has failed and that overlooking Syria has backfired,” Salkini said. The Syrian spokesman also criticized the Bush administration for its opposition to peace talks between Israel and Syria. “If the administration is not playing a negative role in this issue,” he said, “it is at least not playing a positive role.”
Murhaf Jouejati, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University in Washington, said that the administration’s refusal to allow Israel to hold talks with Syria is seen in Damascus as “rather strange.”
“Here comes the U.S., which was always the honest broker in the region, and says ‘no’ to any peace proposal,” the professor said. According to Jouejati, who served during the 1990s as an adviser to the Syrian delegation for peace talks with Israel, the continuation of American pressure on the Assad regime will yield no change. “It will be counter-productive,” he said.
While the Democrats visiting Damascus were vocal in calling on the Bush administration to engage with Syria, they maintained a cautious approach regarding the possible resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria. Prior to the 2006 midterm elections, congressional Democrats made it clear that they do not share the administration’s opposition to a resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks. But one congressional source said this week that the Democrats would not push for such negotiations before Israel decides it is interested in taking part.
The debate over resuming negotiations between Israel and Syria has led to an open dispute between two of Israel’s intelligence agencies — the Mossad and the military intelligence. The Mossad doubts the sincerity of Assad’s proposals for talks, but Israel’s military intelligence believes that Assad is willing to negotiate with Israel without preconditions.
In a briefing for the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the director of research for the Israeli military intelligence, Yossi Baidatz, argued that “Syria’s peace signals are genuine.” Following the meeting, Knesset members said that they were confused, since only a week ago the same parliamentary committee heard the opposite view from Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad. In his presentation, Dagan said that every time Syria is under international pressure, “Assad pulls the same rabbit out of his hat — the willingness to enter into negotiations with Israel.”
Public opinion polls conducted last weekend suggest that Israelis are just as conflicted over the possibility of peace talks with Syria as are the leaders of the nation’s intelligence agencies. While two thirds of Israelis believe that Ehud Olmert’s government should enter peace talks with Assad, the same percentage of Israelis also oppose giving up the Golan Heights if the issue is raised in negotiations with Syria.
A congressional source dealing with foreign affairs issues said this week that Israelis should not expect Congress to solve the Syria dilemma for them. According to the source, the main goal of the lawmakers visiting Assad in Damascus is to get the Baker-Hamilton report implemented, or at least to highlight the differences between the Democratic-led Congress and the Bush administration on the issue of American engagement with Syria. The question of holding direct talks between Israel and Syria will not be part of the agenda of the new Congress, at least not before Israel makes clear that it is interested in such a dialogue, the source said.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.