Quiet, They're Talking With Syria

Two weeks ago, Haaretz reported that during her visit to Jerusalem last January, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked that Israel desist from any contact with Syria - even exploratory contacts of the sort that would test whether Damascus is serious in its declared intentions to hold peace talks with Israel.

The truth of the matter is that in this case, Rice burst through a wide open door in the Prime Minister's Office. Ehud Olmert has enough problems already - even without opening talks with Syria and drawing fire from the Golan Heights communities. But it turns out that in Jerusalem as well, in his home court, there are some who are adamant about finding a way to establish contacts with Syria. The truth is that in Washington, too, in Rice's home court, there are ongoing inquiries to determine whether Syria could leave the "Axis of Evil."

On the day Ze'ev Schiff's report appeared in Haaretz, MK Zahava Gal-On received a brief letter from the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Tzachi Hanegbi informed the head of the Knesset's Meretz faction that following her request, he had decided that the committee would hold a special April 12 session on the chances of a peace process between Israel and Syria. Hanegbi, a senior Kadima member, added in his letter: "In the framework of the discussion, we will be happy to receive an update on the contacts made, with the participation of Dr. Alon Liel and Mr. Abe Suleiman." Hanegbi asked Gal-On to confirm the participation of Liel, the man who initiated the talks via the "Swiss channel," and of Suleiman, who represented Syria.

Liel and Suleiman informed Gal-On that they would be happy to report to the committee on the understandings reached in those talks. It is difficult to imagine that an experienced politician like Hanegbi was not aware that there is no precedent for inviting a foreigner, who represents an enemy country, to testify before a Knesset committee. It is also likely that the Kadima MK is aware of Olmert's position on contacts with Syria, and heard the prime minister referring to Suleiman as a "dreamer." This incident enables one to learn one more thing about fraternity and friendship among the ruling party's leadership. But the Swiss channel also affords an infinitely more important distinction regarding the Israel-Syria-United States triangle: If there was an American ban against responding to the courtship of Bashar Assad, this ban is no longer sacred.

Not long after the first Haaretz report about the Swiss channel, Liel was invited to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to report on his contacts with the Syrians. The meeting was attended by the embassy's entire political staff, apart from the ambassador. But that was just the beginning. Nicholas Lang, the Swiss diplomat who acted as the contact between the Israeli participants and the Syrian regime, was summoned to Washington and updated senior State Department and National Security Council officials on the details of the talks and their results. He arrived in the U.S. shortly after a farewell visit to Damascus, and prior to taking up his new posting as the Swiss ambassador to several African countries.

Another sign that the Syrian-American rift has been mended can be seen in Damascus' receipt of an invitation to send a representative to the conference to resolve the Iraq crisis. And finally, a further indication is the dispatch of Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey for a working visit to the Syrian capital. The State Department spokesman did take the trouble to clarify that this is not a "bilateral visit" and noted that the senior official was "only" accompanying the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in order to discuss the fate of the 600,000 Iraqi refugees who have found refuge in Syria. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the fact that Sauerbrey will be the most senior American official to have visited Syria in the last two years.

The U.S. already surprised Israel recently when Jerusalem received news of the conciliation between the U.S. and Gadhafi's Libya. An Israeli official who recently visited Washington relates that his counterparts in the American administration joked with him that the U.S. is talking with Syria, but asked him "not to tell anyone."

'Judging his character by his anger'

The prime minister's attack's on State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss early this week and at Defense Minister Amir Peretz two days later reminded Anat Hoffman of the bad old Ehud Olmert from his terrible days in the Jerusalem municipality. The news of the silencing of the defense minister and the halting of the cabinet meeting took her back to the years when she was a Jerusalem city councillor representing the left-wing camp. Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was one of the unfortunate targets of Olmert's poisonous tongue.

In 1997, Hoffman reviewed 48 protocols of meetings run by the mayor in the 1990s and documented and analyzed his crude remarks to opposition members, in particular those he made to female opposition members. In a document entitled "Judging his character by his anger," distributed among female MKs and senior female Likud activists, Hoffman finds that the chances of a female city council member falling prey to Olmert's big mouth were seven times greater than those of a male city councillor falling victim to the same verbalisms. The research found that an obedient female city councillor, however, enjoyed a level of freedom of expression several times greater than that granted to "problematic" female city councillors, such as herself.

His favorite terms, which were documented in the protocols, were yachneh (witch), klavteh (bitch), "sanctimonious," "chatterbox" and "hysterical." In one meeting, he told Hoffman: "You've enlightened me with your nonsense," and at another meeting he said to her: "I will not comment on your filthy obscenities, go file a petition against me in the High Court of Justice. You already filed a complaint once and failed. You lied."

Before Olmert unleashes his tongue, he finds the victim's weak points. Hoffman calls it "going for the jugular vein." She says Olmert found out that her husband is involved in the real estate industry and notes that during her 14 years in the city council, she avoided meetings of the planning and construction committee. Yet, the mayor's office spread a rumor that she was promoting her family's construction dealings. In addition, even though there was no truth to it, Olmert once accused her of employing a parliamentary aide "at the public's expense."

The weak point Olmert found in city councillor Nurit Yardeni-Levy of the Labor party was her voice. "It's possible to understand what a turkey is saying, but not what you are saying," he called out to her. In other instances he said: "You have the nerve, with your chirping, to speak to me?" or: "Well what is there to do, your shouting doesn't change the fact that you're lying," and "you're coming with this shrieking voice and preaching to me?" Hoffman says that when she read these Olmert quotes to Yardeni-Levy, her friend burst into tears.

Whenever an opposition member from the left would dare complain about discrimination against Jerusalem's Arabs, or merely annoy the mayor, Olmert would suggest he go to see "comrade Arafat." He referred to Meretz members Yosef "Pepe" Alalu and Meir Margalit as "PLO representatives." Of their colleague, Udi Arnon, Olmert said in a finance committee meeting that he "worked for a newspaper that identifies with Hamas and the Tanzim." Olmert was referring to the Jerusalem local paper, Kol Ha'ir, which regularly reported on the mayor's numerous foreign trips and paid for it with a municipality boycott on advertising in the journal. Arnon filed a libel suit and Olmert apologized to him at his last city council meeting.

Attorney Daniel Seidemann, the founder of the Ir Amim organization which works to combat discrimination against the city's Arabs, also received an apology after he sued Olmert following a radio interview in which the mayor said Seidemann was "an agent of the Palestinian Authority." In his apology notice, Olmert clarified that his remarks did not reflect his position or that of the municipality. Nevertheless, the Interior Ministry approved the city council's decision to pay his attorney and friend, Attorney Ori Messer, a retainer fee of $10,000 for his legal services in the matter. The explanation: "The remarks were made while performing his duties."

Coalition members who did not toe the line also learnt that it is not worth messing with Olmert. Shas' Shmuel Yitzhaki, who opposed Olmert's position on arnona (municipal tax) payments in one meeting, found a lock on his office door the next day. His fellow faction member, Eli Simhayov, who held the finance committee, strayed from the path in the matter of building a community center and was immediately stripped of all his authorities. Olmert took his tactics of silencing and besmirching with him from the mayor's office to the prime minister's office. He also continued his practice of ending meetings as a punishment for political partners' and rivals' disciplinary breaches.

Hoffman relates that after the publication of the "Judging his character by his anger" document, Olmert was careful about how he addressed female city councillors and stopped providing material for Hoffman's monitoring project. She suggests that this shows he has impressive self-control. "If he didn't have self-control," she adds, "he would not be able to live in a house full of leftists." Two things may be concluded from Olmert's attacks on the state comptroller and his silencing of Peretz, says the Olmert analyst. "Either these were planned courses of action or something bad happened to his self-control."

The silent Jews

After Australian Prime Minister John Howard voiced public support for President George W. Bush's decision to send additional forces to Iraq, Senator Barack Obama, who is running in the Democratic party's presidential nomination, alleged that Howard will not only back this support with words, but will also send several thousand more Australian soldiers to Iraq.

Olmert would be wise to write down Obama's remarks and review them ahead of his next visit to the White House. On his last visit, the prime minister let slip the following nonsense: "Israel and other nations must be grateful to President Bush for the operation in Iraq, which made a positive, dramatic contribution to security and stability in the region."

Unlike Australia, Israel does not have a single soldier posted in Iraq. But there are Jews in America and also on the battlefields in Iraq. In 13 polls taken by the veteran Gallup Institute since early 2005, it emerges that there is no sector more opposed to the war than the Jewish community. A representative cross sampling of 12,000 Americans indicated that compared to 52 percent of the general population who are opposed to the war, 77 percent of 303 Jewish respondents felt "the war is a mistake." The poll also found that among Jews who support the Democratic Party, opposition to the war reaches 89 percent, compared to 78 percent in the general Democratic population.

The most ardent supporters of the war in Iraq are Mormons (72 percent), who are also considered big supporters of the Greater Land of Israel, friends of the Israeli right wing and loyal partners of the centrist stream of the Jewish establishment. Therefore, it seems that the silent Jewish majority in the U.S. is a lot less militant than its outspoken, non-elected leadership.