As the Middle East peace talks continued here, Secretary of State Warren Christopher briefed a group of Jewish leaders Thursday on the progress of the peace process and a host of other issues.
Approximately 75 Jewish leaders spent about 45 minutes with the secretary, who filled them in on various details of the peace process and on the repercussions from President Clinton’s recent controversial meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
According to meeting participants, Christopher told the Jewish leaders that the administration had not expected to see a breakthrough from the Clinton-Assad meeting and did not see the outcome as a breakthrough.
This came as a contrast to some media reports after the meeting, which indicated that the administration did, in fact, view the Clinton-Assad meeting as representing a significant step forward.
“This clarifies administration has been trumpeting this meeting as a breakthrough,” said Jason Isaacson, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, who attended the briefing.
“It was a much more sober assessment of the meeting and really characterized it as a first step and a modest success, but not a landmark,” Isaacson added.
Christopher did say the meeting produced some positive results, however, including Assad’s sought-after statement about “normal” relations among Middle Eastern countries.
Participants said Christopher also indicated that Assad is living up to his recent pledge to allow Syria’s Jewish population to leave the country.
One participant at the meeting told the group that only 50 Jews have yet to receive exit visas to leave Syria.
Christopher told the participants that Clinton and Assad had tough exchanges on the issues of terrorism, narcotics and human rights. Syria has been accused of having a negative record on all of those issues.
The secretary did not specifically address the issue of whether or not Syria would remain on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, but he did say that there were no major changes in U.S.-Syrian relations.
Christopher, who was joined by members of his Middle East team, spoke for about 15 minutes and then took questions from the audience.
The secretary said that the Washington-based peace process, under its new, more streamlined format featuring only the heads of the Israeli and Arab negotiating teams, was producing more progress.
He also said the United States was not putting pressure on Israel during the course of the talks.
The talks resumed here Monday in their new low-profile guise, at secret locations to avoid media scrutiny.
“The secretary has shown a real interest in keeping the Jewish community informed on the peace process, and it is much appreciated,” said Jess Hordes, Washington representative for the Anti-Defamation League, who attending the briefing.
Christopher said he expected the Arab boycott to deteriorate, and that even before the next Arab League meeting, he to see some Arab countries announce they would effectively relinquish the and tertiary boycotts affecting companies doing business with Israel.
The Arab League has agreed to discuss rescinding the secondary and tertiary boycotts at its upcoming meeting in March.
The administration and Jewish groups have been calling for an end to the longtime boycott, in effect since before the founding of Israel in 1948.
Christopher also discussed other parts of the world, including the continuing conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He said that the Bosnia issue was very important, but not central to U.S. strategic priorities.
Many Jewish groups have been calling for stronger U.S. action in Bosnia and have been disappointed in the administration’s response.
“His discussion of Bosnia was another statement of administration unwillingness to risk the political capital to arrest the tragedy in Bosnia,” Isaacson said.
Overall, Jewish leaders seemed satisfied with Christopher’s performance.
“I think he clarified some nagging points and presented a realistic view of the problems posed” for Israel in the Middle East peace process, said Warren Eisenberg, director of B’nai B’rith’s International Council, who was at the meeting.
“It was effectively a mutual administration society,” said one World Jewish Congress official who participated in the meeting. “It is clear that the administration felt comfortable with the Jewish community, and the Jewish community felt confident in the administration.”