Two American Jewish leaders who accompanied President Clinton to Damascus last week said they went as a show of support for Clinton’s efforts in the peace process.
Clinton brought a large group of Jewish and Arab Americans with him on his fourday visit to the Middle East.
But for the Syrian leg of the trip, only five accompanied him: Lynn Lyss, chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, Lester Pollack, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and three Arab Americans.
For Lyss, a defining moment of the five-hour visit to Damascus came during a trip to the marketplace. An American Secret Service man cleared the way, “just pushing people aside,” she said.
The people did not protest; they seemed used to such treatment, Lyss said.
Lyss was struck by “the contrasts of the police state, and people just going about their business, just living there.”
During the visit, unlike previous trips by Jewish groups such as Americans for Peace Now or Project Nishma, there were no opportunities to meet with Syrian officials.
The Jewish leaders met with American Embassy officials, and attended the news conference held by Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Pollack said he did not feel it inappropriate to visit Syria, despite that country’s continuing harboring of terrorism and Assad’s failure to convince the Israeli public that he truly desires peace.
“We were going as a group of Jewish Americans and Arab Americans to help the president in his efforts to advance the peace process,” he said.
“I felt we were supporting a very strong message that the peace process should go forward, that terror will not be tolerated and that there will be a very proactive campaign to root out terror wherever it is, and wherever it is facilitated,” he said.
The two visited with one of the few remaining of Syrian Jews, all of whom are now free to leave the country.
Four of the family’s six brothers had moved to the United States, where they had established a business. Two stayed with their families to continue their business of selling rugs, jewelry and wooden boxes.
Lyss asked how they felt about life in Damascus, now that their rabbi and 95 percent of the Jewish community had departed.
“We are waiting to see what happens with peace,” replied Elli Hamadani, said Lyss.
Lyss said that the American officials they met with felt “it is just a matter of time until there is a breakthrough with Syria.”