News Analysis: As Christopher Shuttles the Region, Syria Moves Toward Public Diplomacy

With little progress emerging in the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, Damascus last week decided to let a well-known diplomat put Syria’s case directly to the Israeli public.

Employing what has become known as “public diplomacy,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa last Friday gave a first-ever interview to Israel Television, speaking in Washington with the station’s Mideast affairs editor, Ehud Ya’ari.

The interview, broadcast on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s arrival in the region, followed a Washington news briefing in which Israeli journalists for the first time were welcomed by the Syrians and encouraged to ask questions.

Sharaa had addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York earlier last week, and was invited to Washington to meet with President Clinton and other administration officials. While in Washington, Sharaa also met with American Jewish leaders in what was seen as another attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Syrian talks.

With many Israelis balking at any land-for-peace deal with Syria, the decision by Damascus to put a human face on its negotiating stance may well add a new public relations facet to the long deadlocked talks.

The United States is known to have been pressing Syria hard to provide gestures of public goodwill to the Israeli public in order to help the Rabin government shore up support for its land-for-peace policy.

And, indeed, the interview was applauded in Jerusalem. On Sunday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin welcomed the television interview by the Syrian foreign minister as “a positive step.”

The prime minister praised Sharaa’s performance as “very relaxed,” and said the wide gaps in the negotiations between Israel and Syria that were evident in the interview, were to be expected.

In the interview, Sharaa firmly restated Syria’s insistence on total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, including evacuation of all the settlements there.

Rabin made the comments to Israel Television on the eve of a new round of Israel-Syrian negotiations conducted via Christopher, who arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday for his fifth round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy since May.

Upon his arrival, Christopher also praised Sharaa’s interview.

“Some interesting things are happening here in the region,” Christopher observed, noting “how far we’ve come” from the days of the Madrid Conference in late 1991, when Sharaa and his aides refused any contact with Israeli journalists.

‘SUBSTANTIVE GAPS’ REMAIN

But Christopher, like Rabin, noted the “substantive gaps” in the two sides’ positions that the Sharaa interview had highlighted.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Christopher said.

The Christopher mission was at least partly overshadowed here by three events: a terror attack in Jerusalem on Sunday night that left two dead and 13 wounded, the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas and the standoff between the United States and Iraq, in the wake of the Iraqi troop buildup along the border with Kuwait.

After meeting with Christopher on Monday, Rabin told reporters, “What we want is peace and security and dignity, for Israel and Syria. We want a fair peace that brings about normalization and security for both our countries.”

But neither he nor Christopher had any breakthroughs to report by midweek.

The Iraqi military buildup resulted in last-minute changes in Christopher’s schedule, including unscheduled visits to Amman and Kuwait City.

After meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Kuwait on Wednesday to discuss the Iraqi buildup, Christopher was scheduled to return to Damascus and Jerusalem later this week for further discussions.

Christopher’s meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad on Tuesday lasted more than three hours, and after it was over he told reporters that Israel and Syria were “moving in the right direction.”

But aside from the carefully worded diplomatic language he employed when talking to reporters, Christopher again had no breakthroughs to report.

In the absence of diplomatic breakthroughs, Sharaa’s interview with Israel Television was seen at the very least as a breakthrough on the public relations front.

In substance, however, the Syrian official angered many Israelis when he claimed in his interview that Syria had, in the past, always avoided bombing or shelling civilian targets.

Veterans at Tel Katzir and other kibbutzim at the foot of the Golan Heights vigorously contested Sharaa’s version of history and provided film and still photographs of past attacks on the troubled border with Syria to prove their point.

Still, Sharaa attempted to assure his Israeli audience that when peace came between Israel and Syria, “all people will feel absolutely satisfied. The fruits of peace will be there.

“We have to change the face of the region,” Sharaa asserted in the interview.

He did not, however, specify in detail what elements of normalization he envisaged in any future peace treaty.

Sharaa said security arrangements should be balanced, and would provide Israel with confidence that no surprise attack could take place.

Similarly, he sought to assure the Israel public that peace with Syria would mean security and peace across the entire northern front.

The interview was arranged, under a veil of secrecy, by Israeli, Syrian and American diplomats in Washington.

NEXT STORY