WASHINGTON — Sen. Arlen Specter in a Damascus meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad discussed taking on a role as a peace mediator between Syria and Israel.
JTA confirmed last weekend’s meeting, which was reported this week in the Israeli and Turkish media, with sources who helped organize the event.
Specter (D-Pa.), who is Jewish and has longstanding ties with Syria, first flew to Israel to see if Israeli officials wanted to convey any messages to Assad.
According to Ynet, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon told Specter that Israel was ready to resume talks without preconditions, that it did not plan to launch attacks on its northern border and that a Syria-brokered release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip, would be a goodwill gesture. Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza, is close to the Assad regime.
Specter then flew to Damascus, where he met with Assad. There was no official word about the meeting. The Syrian Embassy here and Specter’s office did not return requests for comment. Specter returned to the United States Monday evening.
Syria wants to resume talks where they left off in 2008, when Turkey mediated negotiations between Assad’s government and the Israeli government led by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who reportedly was ready to cede the Golan Heights at the end of the peace process. Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert’s successor, has said that is too high a price to pay to restart talks.
Both Syria and Israel have concerns about the prospect of another Israeli war with Lebanon, which borders both nations. Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terrorist group, has built its arms capacity since its last war with Israel in 2006 and reportedly is seeking an excuse to oust the country’s Western-leaning government.
It’s not clear who initiated the Assad-Specter meeting. The 80-year-old senator, who was defeated in a Democratic primary after switching from the Republican Party, is said to be looking for a more majestic career ender. His pro-Israel credentials are impeccable, but he has always counseled openness to Syria.
According to Turkish and Israeli media reports, Assad increasingly is eager to distance himself from Iran, his traditional ally, as the Islamic Republic faces increasing isolation because of its suspected nuclear weapons program. Additionally, the reports say, Assad would prefer a Western nation broker talks with Israel now that Turkish-Israel ties are tense in the wake of Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Turkish-flagged aid ship aiming to breach a maritime embargo on Gaza.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the Syria Comment newsletter, said Specter is a natural choice for mediator because he has visited Damascus nearly 20 times during his time in office and he is Jewish. Landis said Syria wants to use diplomatic means to help stabilize and improve its economy and get back the Golan.
“Syria is finding out if there’s anything left in the Obama administration that could be useful to them,” Landis said.
Eyal Zisser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the status of Specter’s Israeli interlocutor — Ayalon, a deputy minister with no power — meant the Israelis did not take seriously the prospect of renewed talks.
“He’s just a respected American senator who comes to Syria often,” Zisser said. “Unfortunately there is nothing new there.”
Locally, Israel observers in Pittsburgh warmly greeted the possibility of Specter as a peace mediator.
“That’s certainly exciting news,” said Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
“Israel’s relationship with the Turks has deteriorated to the point where they can no longer serve as intermediaries between Israel and Syria,” Fidel said, “so we are lucky that someone with Sen. Specter’s history, both as a friend to Israel and with warm ties to Damascus, is stepping into the void.”
She noted that the news report comes shortly after Syria’s Assad told a Lebanese newspaper that he is interested “in a comprehensive peace, i.e., normal relations,” and not just a permanent cease-fire, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.
“The Israeli government owes it to its people to explore that,” Fidel said.
That Specter may become a mediator doesn’t come as a surprise to Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District.
“I met with him in Washington last September and he told of his desires to be a mediator in Israeli and Syrian matters,” Pavilack said in a written response to The Chronicle. “We welcome anything he could do to bring about real peace for the region. However, in my opinion, there is little that can be done at this time.”
Noting a Feb. 25 Washington Post story, which reported, “the presidents of Iran and Syria on Thursday ridiculed U.S. policy in the region and pledged to create a Middle East ‘without Zionists,’” Pavilack added, “I don’t think Syria has any intent on trying to create anything we would see as positive.”
(Chronicle Executive Editor Lee Chottiner contributed to this story.)