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Officials Rolled out the Red Carpet for Assad Visit, British Jews Charge

December 17, 2002
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British Jews have responded angrily to an official visit here by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The visit is “quite disgusting,” said a spokesman for the Zionist Federation of Britain, one of the main organizers of a protest held in London as Assad had lunch with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday.

“It has upset many people in the Jewish community in London and beyond,” spokesman Simon Barrett added.

As Blair and Assad met Monday, hundreds of pro- and anti-Syria demonstrators chanted and banged pots and pans outside the gates of Downing Street.

Assad’s visit — the first official visit to Britain by a Syrian head of state — is being seen partly as a reward for Syria’s recent support of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which threatened Baghdad with “serious consequences” if it did not allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq.

Syria, the Security Council’s only Arab member, was not expected to back the resolution when it came up for a vote in late November. But it cast its supporting vote at the last minute, allowing unanimous passage of the resolution.

In addition, observers say, Assad was invited to London because Britain is eager to keep Syria behind the U.S.-led coalition in the event of an attack on Iraq.

But British Jews say such strategic goals do not justify the red-carpet treatment Assad is receiving.

In addition to a lunch with Blair, Assad is also meeting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, and is being hosted by the Lord Mayor of London during his Dec. 15-18 visit.

Lord Janner, a veteran Labor Party politician and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said it is “perfectly reasonable and proper” that, as leader of a country on the Security Council, Assad be received by the prime minister.

“But it is not reasonable that he meet the queen or Prince Charles,” Janner said.

Many British Jews went further, especially in light of Assad’s support for suicide bombers in an interview last week with the Times of London newspaper and a report in Britain’s Daily Telegraph that Syria is continuing to smuggle arms to Iraq.

Moreover, critics point out, terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine all maintain offices in Damascus.

“It is one thing having dialogue and another having a red-carpet treatment,” said Stuart Polak, director of the lobbying group Conservative Friends of Israel.

“Syria is still on the American list of states that sponsor terrorism,” said Polak, who participated in Monday’s demonstration.

The British government “has totally stepped overboard” by making Assad’s trip “almost a state visit,” the highest level of diplomatic visit, he said.

The Zionist Federation of Britain said London’s position appeared inconsistent.

“How can we be fighting a war on terrorism” if Assad is “on an official visit and meeting the queen?” Barrett asked. “There is a completely contradictory message going out to the British public.”

He added: “There are issues that have to be highlighted, like his support for Hezbollah and Al-Qaida in the refugee camps of southern Lebanon, and Syria’s illegal occupation of Lebanon.”

Meanwhile, the son of a kidnapped Israeli businessman is visiting London at the same time as Assad to highlight Syria’s links to terrorism.

Ori Tannenbaum’s father, Elhanan, was kidnapped by Hezbollah operatives while on a business trip in Europe in October 2000. His fate remains unknown.

“There is clear evidence that Hezbollah’s criminal activities are being carried out with the full knowledge and sponsorship of Syria,” which provides “significant operational, financial and political aid,” a spokeswoman at the Israeli Embassy in London said.

Blair said before meeting Assad on Monday that London and Damascus do not see eye to eye on terrorism.

“We disagree on the terrorist groups still based in Syria. I believe you cannot be anything other than 100 percent against terror and will say so,” Blair said Monday.

“There will be hard talking, too,” about “the Middle East peace process. Britain cannot accept that there can be any justification for the appalling acts of terrorism against innocent Israeli citizens,” Blair added.

Eric Mooman, president of the Zionist Federation and one of the main organizers of Monday’s demonstration, said such efforts to influence Assad are pointless.

“These opportunities for democratic debate have very little value,” he told JTA.

“I know people prefer to talk, but there have been opportunities and the Syrians have rejected them. They are quite hard-line. They’re not even ambiguous,” Mooman said.

“It’s extremely unlikely that” Assad is going to change any of his positions as a result of his London meetings, Mooman added.

Blair visited Damascus last year, where Assad humiliated him at a joint news conference by criticizing Israel in harsh language and praising terrorist attacks against the Jewish state.

The Board of Deputies, an umbrella organization that represents most British Jews, also expressed concern about Assad’s London visit.

“We have asked the prime minister to make clear to President Assad, in the strongest terms, the unacceptable nature of his comments, which embody the most vicious kind of anti-Semitism,” the board said in a statement.

Calling Syria “a secular dictatorship with one of the world’s worst human rights records,” the board condemned Assad and the state-sponsored Syrian press for consistent “anti-Semitism, comparisons of Israel with the Nazis, Holocaust denial and the perpetuation of the myth of blood libel.”

The board and federation both planned to try to deliver letters to Assad expressing their views.

Israel also expressed concern about the visit of Assad, who trained in London to be an eye doctor before assuming the Syrian presidency.

“He trained as an ophthalmologist,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman told the BBC. “But he has a real blind spot about terrorists.”

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