U.S. lawmaker, Syria's Assad working to renew peace talks with Israel
Netanyahu refrains from attacking an initiative by U.S. Senator Kerry and Syria's Assad, but is openly skeptical of the Syrian President's sincerity.
U.S. Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and a close associate of U.S. President Barack Obama, has been working together with Syrian President Bashar Assad over the last few months on a plan to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been briefed on Kerry's talks with Assad, opposes the plan, since he does not believe Assad is serious about making peace with Israel.
Kerry has met with Assad in Damascus five times over the last two years. The issue of restarting Israeli-Syrian talks was raised at all of these meetings, and a few months ago, the two began exploring practical ideas for doing so.
According to both senior Israeli officials and European diplomats, Kerry and Assad began drafting an unofficial position paper that would define the principles of negotiations with Israel and the conditions for restarting them.
Kerry kept Obama and his advisors informed of these discussions, in which he tried to devise wording that would be sufficiently ambiguous to satisfy both sides' political needs.
The first item dealt with a key Syrian demand - that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights. The wording of this clause was similar to that used during the Israeli-Syrian talks conducted by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: It stated that the basis for the talks would be the principle of land for peace, in accordance with the 1991 Madrid Conference and UN resolutions on the subject.
Kerry also tried to draft a clause to satisfy one of Israel's key demands - that any peace agreement lead to Syria severing its ties with Iran and Hezbollah.
A European diplomat briefed on the Kerry-Assad talks said that Assad had expressed willingness to discuss "Syria's strategic positioning and regional security issues" in negotiations with Israel. That formulation is vague, but can be interpreted as reflecting Syrian willingness to discuss its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. As with the first clause, it resembles the formulation used in the indirect talks that Olmert held with the Syrians via Turkish mediators in 2008.
Kerry briefed both Netanyahu and outgoing National Security Adviser Uzi Arad on the talks, and on some of his visits, he went to Jerusalem either immediately before or immediately after his meetings with Assad. Late last month, Kerry was supposed to make another visit to Damascus and then to Jerusalem, but the trip was canceled at the last minute, on request from the White House, due to the crises in Lebanon and Egypt.
During his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu conducted negotiations with the late Syrian President Hafez Assad, the current ruler's father, via American Jewish businessman Ron Lauder. Then-defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai has claimed that Netanyahu agreed to cede the entire Golan during these talks, while both Netanyahu and Arad have countered that he agreed to only a partial withdrawal. Either way, he has not resumed talks on the Syrian track during his current term of office.
Netanyahu has refrained from attacking Kerry's initiative, as he does not want to anger the powerful senator. But he is openly skeptical, saying the vague wording of the clause on Syria's ties with Iran and Hezbollah is insufficient.
"Kerry is working on a paper, that's true," said a senior official in Netanyahu's bureau. "But the French, the Bulgarians and the Brazilians come from Damascus with the same messages. Netanyahu doesn't think Assad is serious and doesn't see a genuine willingness on his part to go for peace with Israel."
In private conversations, Netanyahu often cites the interview Assad gave The Wall Street Journal last month as an example of the problem. In this interview, Netanyahu claimed, Assad said that Syria is in no danger of a revolution like that in Egypt, because his strong stance against Israel accords with his people's deepest beliefs.
But in fact, the transcript shows that Assad didn't say this. He did say that Syria is stable because the government is "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people ... When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance." But he never said this convergence of beliefs and interests had anything to do with his position on Israel.
Indeed, on the contrary, he spoke favorably of the peace process and his talks with Olmert. The peace process, he said, "is not dead because you do not have any other option. If you want to talk about a 'dead peace process,' this means everybody should prepare for the next war, and this is something that is not in our interest or in the interest of the region ... we have to believe that only peace can help us."
He also said that he and Olmert had been very close to a breakthrough in negotiations. As for the issues of Hezbollah and Hamas, he said these are directly connected to the peace process, and in the context of this process, all issues can be resolved.
Frederick Jones, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's communications director, told Haaretz that "Senator Kerry has long supported resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria. But to be perfectly clear: He is not engaged in any negotiations with anyone and has no plans to travel to either country."
Kerry is considered among the people closest to Obama and has conducted diplomatic missions on his behalf in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and other countries. But he has been particularly active on the Syrian front, and is credited with persuading Obama to begin a dialogue with Assad and to appoint an American ambassador to Damascus after years in which the post was vacant. Kerry talks with Assad by phone frequently and may well be the American official closest to him. On one visit, Kerry and his wife even had dinner with Assad and his wife.