Menu JTA Search

Jewish Leader Stunned by Speech, but Gratified by Historic Progress

Shoshana Cardin had braced herself for hard-line opening speeches from the Arab delegates at the peace conference in Madrid, but the Syrian foreign minister left her stunned.

“The vituperative rhetoric, the exaggeration of figures and the deliberate distortions of history in the Syrian speech was more than anticipated,” the American Jewish leader said in a telephone interview from Madrid.

Cardin, who is chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that despite the harsh tone of the Syrian speech, Israelis Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was in a decidedly cheery mood when she met with him Thursday evening, at the close of the peace conference’s second day.

Despite the posturing of the public sessions, Shamir reported good meetings with other foreign leaders, including one Wednesday with the Egyptian foreign minister.

“For the first time, they discussed issues of substance in a way they had not been able to before,” said Cardin. “The meeting with (Soviet President Mikhail) Gorbachev was one of the most pleasant and productive he had ever had with a head of state.”

Cardin was pleased with President Bush’s opening speech Wednesday, particularly his avoidance of code words, such as “land for peace,” and the fact that he did not raise the issue of Israeli settlements in the territories.

The Jewish leader felt her optimistic mood wane during the Palestinian address, only to worsen as Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa spoke.

U.S. UNPREPARD FOR ‘EXTREME VENOM’

Among the most disturbing of his “harsh and outrageous” remarks, she said, was his call for the dismantling of all Israeli settlements in the disputed territories, including Jerusalem, and the demand for the return of every inch of land.

“Judging by their body language, I think the Americans were not prepared for the extreme venom this speech spewed,” said Cardin.

Nonetheless, “the fact that everyone sat down together, in itself was an accomplishment,” she said.

“Israelis I’ve been speaking to here feel this was a beginning of a process, a process that is now irreversible. There are contacts between Israelis and others in the Arab states,” she said.

Those contacts included a one-hour news conference Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave to the Arab press Thursday, an event Cardin called a “major breakthrough.”

Cardin herself made brief small talk with two Palestinians when they were introduced to her by Israelis.

But she cautioned about what lies beyond the opening, ceremonial stage of the conference.

“This was vital and historic, in the sense that it afforded the opportunity to sit at the table and face each other,” she said. “Now that the real work begins it becomes much more difficult.”

Pointing out that it took decades for Washington and Moscow to conclude arms-control accords, she said, “There will be starts and stops. Any cessation of direct talks should not be viewed as a breakdown.”

NEXT STORY