Former Aipac Head Leads Push for American-Syrian Rapprochement
By Marc Perelman
Jewish Daily Forward
Thu. Aug 28, 2008
Thomas Dine spent years transforming the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee into a Washington powerhouse, but now he has
embarked on a very different mission: building a bridge between the
United States and Israel's nemesis Syria.
Dine is currently serving as the head of an American-Syrian working
group set up early last year by the organization Search for Common
Ground. It comprises eight high-level figures from each country,
including former American ambassadors and advisers to the Syrian
After holding two meetings in Syria over the past year, the group
organized a visit to the United States in late July for three of its
Syrian members, during which they met with lawmakers, think-tankers
and media outlets in Washington, Houston and Los Angeles.
"This is a classical track-two mechanism where you have governments
at loggerheads and the private sector steps in to try to bring them
closer," Dine told the Forward in his first public discussion of his
role in the outreach effort.
While Israel and Syria have been engaged in peace negotiations via
Turkey for several months, and Damascus has recently mended fences
with several European countries, the Bush administration has
expressed misgivings about Syria's effort to break out of its
diplomatic isolation. While many observers believe that no change
will take place before America's next administration settles in,
Dine and his comrades are concerned that such a void could lead to
more tensions in the region.
Dine said that the working group had laid out a "strategic plan" to
bring the bilateral relationship "back to normal" within the next
year, which will be the time needed for a new administration to get
familiar with the Middle East terrain. In addition to organizing
meetings here and in Syria, where another one is planned at the end
of the year, each side is briefing its government.
The Syrian delegation to the United States was composed of economist
Samir Seifan, political analyst Sami Moubayed and Samir al-Taqi, a
think-tank director who advises the government and has been involved
in unofficial peace negotiations with Israel in recent months. Among
the American members of the working group are Samuel Lewis, former
ambassador to Israel, and Theodore Kattouf, former Syrian
ambassador. Also included are former Rep. Steve Bartlett of Texas,
former Clinton administration Middle East adviser Robert Malley and
John Marks, president and founder of Search for Common Ground.
The initiative has not been all smooth going. The Syrian delegation
was supposed to include a close aide to President Bashar al-Assad
and to hold a meeting with the State Department's top Middle East
official. But Riad Daoudi, a legal adviser to the foreign ministry,
stayed in Baghdad, and the delegation did not get to see David
Welch, assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.
Dine said that Daoudi canceled the meeting because he had to attend
a briefing about Israeli-Syrian negotiations in Damascus. The State
Department said the encounter was canceled due to scheduling
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, offers
another explanation: "Syria wanted to use Dine to open up doors in
Washington, and he was supposed to get a meeting between Daoudi and
Welch but could not deliver."
Dine disputed that assertion and stressed that he had been asked to
come on board not by the Syrians, but by the head of Search for
Common Ground. He denied that the Syrian government had been
involved in the initiative, although he acknowledged discussing the
schedule of the visit to America with Syria's ambassador to the
United States, Imad Mustapha, who held a private dinner reception
with the working group during its stay in Washington.
Dine also disputed the notion that he had been enlisted in the
effort because of his Jewish ties, although his previous role at
Aipac has been mentioned in the Arab press and, as he
acknowledged, "the Syrians keep introducing me as the former head of
"I am who I am. I don't hide my Jewishness, but I do this because I
know people in Washington and because I am committed to re-
establishing the U.S. position in the region and getting back on
track with Syria," he said.
Dine is a veteran Washington Jewish insider who has alternated
between government jobs and stints in Jewish organizations. After
serving as a Congressional aide in the late 1970s, he became Aipac's
executive director in 1980, transforming the organization into a
major player in Washington politics. He departed in 1993 to work for
the United States Agency for International Development before
becoming president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a position he
held from 1997 until 2005. He then became CEO of the Jewish
Community Federation of San Francisco, which he left last year.
Nowadays he is an adviser to Search for Common Ground as well as the
dovish Israel Policy Forum.
To Landis, the administration's backtracking on the Welch meeting
suggests that "Washington is not ready to become a part of the
discussion, which means that the Israel-Syria talks will not be able
to reach a decisive phase."
While Dine agrees that the administration was indeed showing little
support for the Israel-Syria negotiations, he claims that major
progress has been made.
"The two sides have never been this close," he said. "We are
reaching a key strategic moment."
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