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Senators Visit Damascus, Push For Syrian Talks

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  • Ron Cohen
    http://www.forward.com/articles/senators-visit-damascus-push-for-syrian-talks/ Washington - As the Israeli debate over engaging Damascus intensifies, several
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2007
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      http://www.forward.com/articles/senators-visit-damascus-push-for-syrian-talks/

      Washington - As the Israeli debate over engaging Damascus intensifies, several influential
      American lawmakers have defied the White House with visits to Syria and calls for talks
      between the United States and the Baathist regime.


      This week, the issue heated up in Israel as the country’s Mossad spy agency and military
      intelligence sparred over the wisdom of reopening a diplomatic channel with Syria. So far,
      the Israeli government has turned down the calls from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for
      renewed peace talks, citing mainly the Bush administration’s policy of isolating Damascus.

      In the past two weeks, however, three Democrats — Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts,
      Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Bill Nelson of Florida — and one Jewish Republican, Senator
      Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, visited Damascus despite strong criticism from the Bush
      administration, which opposes any rapprochement with Syria.

      Specter, who met with Assad on Tuesday, held a news conference in Damascus in which he
      said he heard from the Syrian president “an interest in negotiating with Israel to try to
      bring a peaceful settlement to the Syrian-Israeli dispute under the U.N. doctrine of
      land-for-peace.” The Pennsylvania senator, known for his pro-Israel views and longtime
      support for talks with Syria, also asserted that the United States could play a positive
      role in reviving peace talks between Israel and Syria. In their meeting in Damascus, Assad
      told Specter that Syria is interested in convening a regional conference of the countries
      neighboring Iraq to discuss possible solutions for resolving the crisis there.

      While Specter steered clear of directly criticizing the administration’s policy of
      isolating Syria, his visit to Damascus is seen in Washington as significant, making him
      the only Republican to openly defy the White House’s call for lawmakers to refrain from
      going to Syria and meeting Assad.

      The Democratic senators who met the Syrian president during the past two weeks have made
      it clear that they see their talks with Assad as part of the push for the implementation
      of the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s recommendations, which included a call on the United
      States to engage with Syria on issues regarding the situation in Iraq and a renewal of the
      Israeli-Arab peace process.

      “I feel quite confident in saying this was a conversation worth having and that the
      administration ought to pursue it,” Kerry said last week after his meeting with Assad.
      “It’s worth following up on a number of avenues.”

      Nelson, set to become a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered a similar
      assessment after meeting with Assad a week earlier. “I think it is a crack in the door,”
      Nelson said, “and it is for discussions to continue.”

      The White House tried to discourage American lawmakers from visiting the Syrian president,
      arguing that it would send a mixed message to the Assad regime and be seen as a prize by
      the Syrian president, who Bush administration officials say has defied American demands to
      close Syria’s border with Iraq and to stop supporting terrorism there.

      Ahmed Salkini, press secretary of the Syrian Embassy in Washington, told the Forward that
      the stream of senators heading to Damascus reflects American lawmakers’ dissatisfaction
      with the administration’s policy. “They recognize that the current policy of the U.S. has
      failed and that overlooking Syria has backfired,” Salkini said. The Syrian spokesman also
      criticized the Bush administration for its opposition to peace talks between Israel and
      Syria. “If the administration is not playing a negative role in this issue,” he said, “it
      is at least not playing a positive role.”

      Murhaf Jouejati, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington
      University in Washington, said that the administration’s refusal to allow Israel to hold
      talks with Syria is seen in Damascus as “rather strange.”

      “Here comes the U.S., which was always the honest broker in the region, and says ‘no’ to
      any peace proposal,” the professor said. According to Jouejati, who served during the
      1990s as an adviser to the Syrian delegation for peace talks with Israel, the continuation
      of American pressure on the Assad regime will yield no change. “It will be
      counter-productive,” he said.

      While the Democrats visiting Damascus were vocal in calling on the Bush administration to
      engage with Syria, they maintained a cautious approach regarding the possible resumption
      of peace talks between Israel and Syria. Prior to the 2006 midterm elections,
      congressional Democrats made it clear that they do not share the administration’s
      opposition to a resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks. But one congressional source
      said this week that the Democrats would not push for such negotiations before Israel
      decides it is interested in taking part.

      The debate over resuming negotiations between Israel and Syria has led to an open dispute
      between two of Israel’s intelligence agencies — the Mossad and the military intelligence.
      The Mossad doubts the sincerity of Assad’s proposals for talks, but Israel’s military
      intelligence believes that Assad is willing to negotiate with Israel without preconditions.

      In a briefing for the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the director of
      research for the Israeli military intelligence, Yossi Baidatz, argued that “Syria’s peace
      signals are genuine.” Following the meeting, Knesset members said that they were confused,
      since only a week ago the same parliamentary committee heard the opposite view from Meir
      Dagan, head of the Mossad. In his presentation, Dagan said that every time Syria is under
      international pressure, “Assad pulls the same rabbit out of his hat — the willingness to
      enter into negotiations with Israel.”

      Public opinion polls conducted last weekend suggest that Israelis are just as conflicted
      over the possibility of peace talks with Syria as are the leaders of the nation’s
      intelligence agencies. While two thirds of Israelis believe that Ehud Olmert’s government
      should enter peace talks with Assad, the same percentage of Israelis also oppose giving up
      the Golan Heights if the issue is raised in negotiations with Syria.

      A congressional source dealing with foreign affairs issues said this week that Israelis
      should not expect Congress to solve the Syria dilemma for them. According to the source,
      the main goal of the lawmakers visiting Assad in Damascus is to get the Baker-Hamilton
      report implemented, or at least to highlight the differences between the Democratic-led
      Congress and the Bush administration on the issue of American engagement with Syria. The
      question of holding direct talks between Israel and Syria will not be part of the agenda
      of the new Congress, at least not before Israel makes clear that it is interested in such
      a dialogue, the source said.
      Fri. Dec 29, 2006
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