Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Hoenlein Visit to Syria Coincides With US Initiative

Something is happening behind the scenes with regard to US diplomatic relations with Syria, and it is apparently linked to issues of direct concern to the Jewish people. Whatever is going on, it was important enough to prompt Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the President's Conference, to make an unannounced trip to Damascus about two weeks ago to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hoenlein has confirmed the visit, but refused to provide any details of the subjects he discussed with Syrian officials there, other than to insist that he did not go as a diplomatic “negotiator or a mediator,” but rather to discuss “humanitarian issues.” This revelation follows a report in an Arabic language newspaper in Kuwait last week, that the next US Middle East peace initiative will try to revive negotiations for an Israel-Syrian peace treaty. The initiative is supposedly based upon recent secret US contacts with Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who have signaled to the US that they are interested in re-establishing a dialogue with Israel.

Another recent developments which lends credence to the Kuwaiti report was President Obama’s move to circumvent a prior rejection by the US Senate by giving his nominee to serve as the new US Syria, veteran diplomat Robert S. Ford, a recess appointment shortly after Congress adjourned for the last time in 2010.


Hoenlein’s visit to Syria was first reported by an Israeli news channel on Monday. That report suggested that the visit was at the request of Prime Minister Netanyahu, for the purpose of opening a diplomatic dialogue between Israel and Syria. During his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu used American Jewish philanthropist Ron Lauder as an emissary to the Syrians in an attempt to inaugurate a peace initiative which eventually failed to bear fruit.


However, in a subsequent interview, Hoenlein denied that it had anything to do with a new Israeli diplomatic move towards Syria. “I went to Damascus on an important humanitarian issue to the Jewish people,” Hoenlein told Haaretz. “Netanyahu did not ask anything from me, and any attempt to link me to the diplomatic process with Syrian is manipulation.” The only further details Hoenlein revealed was that his visit involved the restoration of Syrian synagogues and cemeteries, and was “for the good of the Jewish people.”


In an interview with the Politico news web site, Hoenlein explained why he could not divulge what he discussed with Syrian officials.




“Syria is very complicated place and an important country in the region, and it’s important to see what can be done in the future. I meet with a number of Arab leaders. If they trust you, they talk to you. . . People know my word is my word and I am not discussing what we talked about.”


Before accepting his current post as the top professional at the Presidents Conference in 1986, Hoenlein served as the founding executive director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. During those years, he played an active role in helping to resolve various Jewish humanitarian issues around the world, including contributing to the successful efforts to arrange for the emigration of Jews who were still living in Syria. As Hoenlein told Politico in his interview, he has been “involved in humanitarian issues and concerns” for four decades.


While Hoenlein’s trip to Damascus may not be directly related to the reported White House diplomatic initiative toward Syria, the fact that they are happening at the same time is probably not a coincidence.




The push to re-open the Syrian peace track is reportedly being led within the White House foreign policy team by longtime Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross. He is said to have told his White House associates that, “Syria is ready to move away from Iran and reduce its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and work with the United States in the fight against terrorism.” Ross is also said to believe that an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement would lead to “a breakthrough in the peace process as a whole to achieve peace in the Palestinian territories.”


The turn toward Syria follows the collapse of Obama’s efforts to restart direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and the recent withdrawal by the US of its offer to Israel of a package of military and diplomatic benefits in return for its agreement to a 3-month extension of the West Bank construction freeze which expired in September.


This is another familiar move out of the classic US Middle East play book. When attempts to foster peace talks between Israel and one of its enemies fail, historically, the US has viewed that as an opportunity to restart negotiations with a different enemy of Israel. During the heyday of the Oslo peace process, the US tried to play the Syrians and the Palestinians off against one another, by getting them to compete over who could win US support first by agreeing to make peace with Israel.




With the recent US pre-occupation with Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growing influence of Iran, a peace agreement with Israel is now seen by the US primarily as a means to achieving other ends in the region, so the effort to play off potential peace partners against one another is far less effective than it used to be.


According to the Kuwait newspaper story, the real reason for Ross’ recent visit to Israel was to obtain a green light from Israel to begin negotiations with the Syrians, through Ford, the new US ambassador to Syria. He would be the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005. At that time, President Bush cut US relations with Syria in the belief that it arranged the car bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. He had been a leading advocate of Lebanese independence from Syria. The Bush administration imposed economic sanctions on Syria, as part of a broader effort to isolate Syria as punishment, for its role as a destabilizing factor in the region for many years.




Ford is a career diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East. He was US ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008, deputy chief of the US mission in Baghdad, and held a number of other Middle East posts.


He was first nominated for the post by Obama last February. His confirmation was blocked by Senate Republicans in protest against Syria’s renewed attempts to dominate Lebanon.


Obama’s efforts so far to re-engage with the Syrians have failed to achieve any progress. Syria has continued military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its ties with Iran. At his confirmation hearings last March, Ford testified that he saw no reason to expect those Syrian priorities to change.


Similarly, there is no real prospect that Obama’s recess appointment of Ford will improve Syrian-American relations




Ford is unlikely to have much more success in promoting a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement than a long succession of US diplomats who have tried and failed in that effort over the past two decades.


He is more likely to be useful to the US by providing first hand reports on the repercussions of the indictments that are expected to be handed down by a United Nations-backed international tribunal which has been investigating the assassination of Hariri.


Indictments are expected against high-ranking Syrian officials and senior leaders of Hezbollah. Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, is now Lebanon prime minister. Syria still dominates the Lebanese government through its influence on Hezbollah, which has gained effective veto power as a member of the Lebanese government coalition. Indictments of senior Hezbollah leaders in the murder of the current prime minister’s father have the potential to set off a new Lebanese civil war, and tear its current government apart.




Another recess appointment made by Obama last week was the naming of Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. as the new US ambassador to Turkey. Obama gave Ford and Ricciardone recess appointments because winning confirmation for them was expected to be even more difficult in the new Senate, because of its diminished Democrat majority.


Ricciardone is also a career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Egypt, and most recently held the post of deputy ambassador at the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. His nomination was also held up by Senate Republicans, because, under a pro-Islamic government, Turkey has turned away from its traditional US, European and Israeli allies, while moving closer to Iran. Closing the circle, Turkish efforts a few years ago to conduct indirect peace talks between Israel and the Syrians achieved nothing.




Turkey is a NATO ally, and has long sought formal membership in the European Union. However, deep seated racial and religious prejudices in Europe against the predominantly Muslim Turks have been responsible for repeated delays in consideration of its EU membership application. At the same time, other European countries, even those which were formally communist members of the Soviet-led Warsaw pact, have had little trouble in winning acceptance and membership in the EU, aside from some Russian grumbling.


The Turks have finally taken the hint, and realized that they are viewed by fellow Europeans as, at best, second-class citizens. This accounts for Turkey’s recent turn away from the West, and the bitter public rejection of its once close military ties with Israel. These must be seen in the larger context of Turkey’s efforts to build its regional credibility as a leader in the Muslim world. At the same time, Turkey has sought to strengthen its ties with two of its Muslim neighbors, Iran and Syria.




But none of this really affects the fundamental issues between Syria and Israel. There military confrontation between the two countries goes back to 1948, and it has never been resolved diplomatically. They are still, technically, in a state of war. While the Israeli-Syrian border has been largely peaceful since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel and Syria have fought repeatedly in Lebanon, both directly and through battles involving Syrian-sposored terrorist groups, like Hezbollah.


Any comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Syria would necessitate an Israeli willingness to return the Golan Heights, and an agreement to share water rights to the Kinneret with Syria. In 1981, the Knesset formally annexed the Golan Heights to Israel. The annexation was not internationally recognized.


A prolonged drought in recent years has made Israel more dependent than ever on the Kinneret as its primary source and reservoir for fresh water. Israeli opinion polls indicate that there would be great public resistance to giving the Golan back to Syria. Furthermore, many of Israel’s leading military strategists say that surrendering the Golan to Syria would constitute a grave strategic risk. When the Golan was in Syrian hands before 1967, they were able to use it as a base for the artillery bombardment of much of northern Israel.


There seems to be little reason for optimism that such an effort can succeed. For one thing, there is no indication that Israel would be willing to agree to major concessions to Syria regarding the Golan and the Kinneret, or to trust the erratic Syrian President Bashar Assad to keep his word. Furthermore, the Syrian government has given no public indication that it is willing to distance itself from Iran, or to reduce its weapons and other forms of support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or for Hamas, which still bases its international organization in Damascus.


The last time there were direct Israeli-Syrian peace talks was in 2000, when Ehud Barak was prime minister of Israel. They fell apart over Syrian demands for direct access to the Kinneret.





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