News that President Clinton will meet next month with Syrian leader Hafez Assad has caused concern among some in the Jewish community here.
But others are taking a position similar to that of the Clinton administration, which views a meeting with Assad as furthering a comprehensive peace settlement in the region.
The Jewish leaders voicing doubts say that, to earn a meeting with Clinton, Assad must live up to his promises to allow free travel for Syrian Jews and to allow a congressional delegation to investigate the case of missing Israeli soldiers.
In addition, there is concern that it would be inappropriate for a presidential meeting with a leader whose country remains on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
“I feel confident that President Clinton won’t proceed with the meeting until all the Jews have their exit permits,” Alice Harary, president of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, said Thursday.
Syria’s 1,350-person Jewish community has been awaiting permits to leave the country since last year, when the Syrian government first announced that the community would be able to travel freely.
But in recent months, only a trickle of Jews has been able to leave, prompting the Clinton administration and members of Congress to urge Assad to let the Syrian Jews go.
Assad said earlier this month that he would grant exit permits to Jews by month’s end, leaving Jews here pleased but skeptical.
Harary said she was “hopeful they’ll all be out by the end of the month.” But she said that, as of Thursday, nothing had happened in Syria in the wake of Assad’s announcement.
‘A VITAL CORNERSTONE IN OUR EFFORTS’
About 400 of the 1,350 Jews in Syria have U.S. visas, leaving about 950 in need of exit permits, Harary said.
In Syria, where he was meeting with Assad as part of a swing through the region, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the Clinton-Assad meeting would “help to put in place a vital cornerstone in our efforts to build a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”
One of the goals of his trip was to reengage Syria in the peace process, and Christopher said at a news conference in Damascus on Thursday that the Syrians would be returning to the Washington-based talks, from which they pulled out in September.
Syria and Israel are locked in a disagreement over definitions of a future peace between the two countries and an Israeli withdrawal from at least part of the Golan Heights.
Reports had been circulating here recently that the United States would offer Syria a meeting between Clinton and Assad.
The United States could be playing a more active role in the Israeli-Syrian talks than it did in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said Warren Eisenberg, director of B’nai B’rith’s International Council.
“Syria represents a different case,” Eisenberg said, with “wider stakes.”
The Clinton-Assad meeting, which would take place in Geneva, would be the first encounter between the two.
Christopher would not say whether Syria had made any pledges in return for his meeting with Clinton, nor whether the United States had made any promises to Assad.
Some Jewish officials asked to react to the news said a Clinton-Assad meeting could result in progress on the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track and thus benefit the overall peace process.
“This is a first step that probably needs to be taken at this stage,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who spearheaded a recent letter from 57 colleagues to Christopher urging the secretary to press the Syrians on behalf of the Syrian Jews.
Gary Rubin, executive director of the dovish group Americans for Peace Now, said his organization was “very pleased with the announcement, because any lasting peace in the area has to be a comprehensive peace,” including Syria.
‘QUESTION IS WHETHER HE DESERVES THE REWARD’
But other Jewish officials expressed some wariness about a meeting.
Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote to Clinton on Thursday urging the president not to make a final decision about the meeting until Assad allows the Syrian Jews to leave.
“I am worried that meeting with President Assad while he continues to hold 1,350 Syrian Jews hostage in his country would send the message that the welfare of this beleaguered community is not a priority for the United States government,” Schumer wrote.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he had “real reservations” about the meeting.
“The question is whether he deserves the reward,” Hoenlein said, noting that the meeting would give Assad what he wants, “respectability.”
And Herbert Zweibon, chairman of the group Americans for a Safe Israel, which stands on the right of the American Jewish political spectrum, released a statement calling the meeting a “moral outrage.”
Still other Jewish leaders said Syria must have given the United States certain assurances before Clinton approved the meeting.
“We find it unimaginable that President Clinton would have agreed” to a meeting with Assad “without a clear understanding that such a meeting would signal a change in Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism and in its reluctance to spell out the terms of its peace with Israel,” American Jewish Congress President Robert Lifton and Executive Director Henry Siegman said in a statement.
Another gesture the United States made this week was allowing Kuwait to transfer three old U.S.-made 727 planes to Syria.
But representatives of the American Jewish community received assurances from the administration that the gesture was a limited one.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.