Assad Meets with American Jews, in New Sign of Warming Relations

In a new sign of Syria’s turn away from confrontation with Israel, President Hafez Assad met last week in Damascus with the immediate past leaders of the American Jewish Congress.

The meeting followed recent visits to Syria by two American Jewish groups, who held discussions with senior government officials.

These visits follow a long tradition of contacts between Arab leaders and American Jews that have preceded Arab-Israeli diplomatic breakthroughs.

At the same time, the intense deliberation within high Syrian governmental circles over permitting these contacts highlights the decidedly cautious approach Assad has taken toward possible peace with Israel.

Last week’s delegation went under the auspices of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, whose U.S./Middle East Project is headed by Henry Siegman, the AJCongress former executive director.

Assad “did not meet with us as Jewish leaders, though he was clearly aware all of us had played a role in American Jewish life,” said Siegman.

Siegman said that in reporting the meetings, the official Syrian media did not mention the group’s Jewish ties.

The other delegation members, who are also involved in the Council’s Middle East project, were Robert Lifton, AJCongress’ immediate past president; Lester Crown, the Chicago industrialist and Jewish philanthropist; and Steven P. Cohen, a consultant for the Council on Foreign Relations, who has long played a role in back-door negotiations between Israel and the Arab states.

Six weeks ago, a 10-person delegation representing Project Nishma visited Syria for four days and met with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

Project Nishma is a Jewish group which supports the peace process.

In January, members of Americans for Peace Now also visited Damascus.

That these meetings are being seen as a step forward by Israel is evident from remarks made by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Aug. 17, after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

‘AN ADVANCE’ IN THE PEACE PROCESS

Peres said that Assad had told the Egyptian leader of his willingness to receive a delegation of American Jewish leaders in Damascus to discuss Israeli-Syrian relations.

Peres said Assad’s offer signified “an advance” in the peace process.

Israeli officials now say that Mubarak, and Peres, were apparently referring to Siegman’s group, which met with Assad on Aug. 16. The meeting was facilitated by Mubarak.

“These contacts could serve to boost and help establish a direct and continuing dialogue with Syria,” said an official at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

“The more Assad speaks to and hears from people, Jewish leaders and others, of the message of peace and the need for peace, the better the chances are for peace,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

Another Israeli official in Washington offered a more cautious assessment.

By meeting with Jews as part of a non-Jewish organization, Assad “did not really make an ideological concession,” said this official. “There is an absence of sufficient qualitative change.

“This is in no way a substitute. If he thinks meeting with Americans, whether administration officials or American Jews, is a substitute for direct dialogue with Israeli officials, he is misreading the reality,” the Israeli official said.

Israel and Syria are apparently involved now in indirect negotiations, with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher passing ideas and general proposals from one party to the next. But Israel believes that for the process to really move forward, it requires direct discussions.

Siegman said his group did not carry any messages to or from Damascus, although it met with Israeli leaders both before and after the visit.

Their visit also included meetings with Mubarak, Jordan’s King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Richard Murphy, a former undersecretary of state and former ambassador to Damascus, said meetings between Syrian officials and American Jews reflect not only a warming toward the Jews, but toward America.

The trip to Syria “has not been a voyage often made by private individuals,” said Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. He added that Syrians have had little contact with the outside world.

“That desire to reach out on the part of Syrians, to explain their position, and listen to other points of views, I think is a plus for both sides,” said Murphy.

Cohen agreed that his group’s visit reflected Assad’s increasing engagement with American society.

“As he engages more deeply in American society he understands there are institutions other than the American government that are important to engage with, such as the Council on Foreign Relations. And that will increasingly include the Jewish community,” he said.

SYRIA MAINLY INTERESTED IN THE U.S.

While the meetings with Syrian officials mark a new course for American Jews, this is not the first time that such contact has preceded official Israeli-Arab dialogue.

Similar meetings were held in the past between American Jews and Egyptians, Palestinians and other Arabs.

“Our feeling is that over the years the peace process is generally preceded by relationships between the American Jewish leadership and the parties in question,” said Theodore Mann, co-chairman of Project Nishma.

“Syria, like other parties to the peace process on the Arab side, is primarily interested in opening relations with the U.S. and we are, after all, Americans,” he said. “Apparently Syria believes that we have some influence with the American government.”

During the almost two-hour meeting at the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Project Nishma delegates stressed the importance of more public diplomacy by Syria in order “to convince the Israelis that peace will be genuine and safe for them,” Executive Director Thomas Smerling said.

Smerling said the American Jewish community is “extremely valuable” in peace negotiations as a “vehicle that Israel and Arab governments can use to take incremental steps towards engagement with each other.

“Every breakthrough is preceded by a long series of small steps, of tiny gestures, of precedents being broken. That’s how the peace process moves forward and at some point crystallizes in a serious breakthrough,” Smerling said.

Smerling noted that Egypt extended the redcarpet treatment to then-Hadassah President Charlotte Jacobson shortly before President Anwar Sadat made his surprise trip to Israel in 1977.

According to Israeli official and others familiar with Israeli diplomacy, Cohen, who was part of the recent delegation that met with Assad, has served as a “conduit” for Peres in back-door dealings with Palestinians and other Arabs.

Cohen dismisses this account, which is widely accepted.

Smerling said Syria is now involved in a slow, incremental process of coming to terms with Israel.

He said Syria’s decision to welcome the Project Nishma delegation as an organization and not as individuals represents one step in this process.

The earlier group from Americans for Peace Now received visas only as individuals.

“It is a distinction that is very meaningful to the Syrians,” said Smerling, who said the Syrian government considered his group’s visa request for more than a year.

Another partial gesture from Syria came earlier this month, when it granted a visa to David Makovsky, a reporter from the Jerusalem Post who also writes for U.S. News and World Report.

While he officially went on behalf of the weekly American magazine, he said the Syrians understood and agreed that he would write about the trip for the Post, as well as a Hebrew newspaper, after he returned to Israel.

Makovsky said Syrian Foreign Ministry officials told him that “they had had a whole discussion as to whether I constitute a confidence-building measure,” said Makovsky. “They decided I wasn’t, because I traveled on an American passport.”

(JTA correspondent Matthew Dorf in Washington contributed to this report.)

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