Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, met recently in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Channel 10 reported on Monday.
According to the Channel 10 report, Hoenlein delivered a message to Assad from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A senior official in Jerusalem said that Netanyahu knew about Hoenlein's trip but did not ask him to send a message or serve as a mediator. Hoenlein also denied that his trip involved diplomatic matters.
Channel 10 reported that Hoenlein told Netanyahu about his trip before it occurred and even received Netanyahu's blessing. According to the report, Netanyahu sent a message to Assad via Hoenlein and after the trip was updated on the details of Hoenlein's conversation with the Syrian president.
Hoenlein is one of the most prominent leaders of the U.S. Jewish community and is considered to be very close to Netanyahu.
In his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, Netanyahu sent another close associate, American Jewish businessman Ron Lauder, as a secret envoy to then-Syrian president Hafez Assad, the father of Bashar Assad.
The senior official in Jerusalem said that it was not a lack of emissaries or mediators preventing talks between Israel and Syria.
"What makes the resumption of negotiations with Syria tough is Assad's precondition – his demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights before the start of talks," the official said.
Hoenlein told Haaretz that he went to Damascus after receiving an invitation from the Syrian presidential palace and did not go as a messenger of Netanyahu or as a mediator between Israel and Syria.
"I went to Damascus on an important humanitarian issue to the Jewish people," he said. "Netanyahu did not ask anything from me and any attempt to link me to the diplomatic process with Syria is manipulation."
Hoenlein said that among the issues he discussed in Syria was the restoration of ancient synagogues in the country as well as other humanitarian matters.
"I wanted to do something good for the Jewish people," he said. "If I speak about this it could lead to failure and to me the results are important."
A host of humanitarian issues exist between Israel and Syria, including Syrian help in securing the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, the whereabouts of missing IDF soldier Guy Hever who disappeared on the Golan Heights more than a decade ago and the repatriation of the remains of Israeli spy Eli Cohen who was executed in Syria in 1965. It is not clear if Hoenlein touched on these issues in his talks with Assad.
Netanyahu believes that Hoenlein's invitation to Damascus was part of an attempt by Assad to become closer to the American Jewish community. Assad thinks this could lead to warmer ties with the U.S. government. In September, during the United Nations General Assembly summit in New York, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem had lunch with a group of Jewish leaders.
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