A man holds a child after an airstrike in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 7, 2018..
(photo credit: REUTERS/BASSAM KHABIEH)
Syrian President Bashar Assad could have averted the civil war in his country had he signed a peace deal with the Jewish state, former ambassador to the US Itamar Rabinovich speculated as he spoke to a visiting delegation of American Jews Monday night.
Rabinovich served in Washington from 1993 to 1996, during which time was also a chief negotiator for Israel on the Syrian track.
“Syria would have been much better off had there been peace with Israel,” he told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on Tuesday night.
Rabinovich said he is often asked about this hypothetical scenario, by people who believe that had such a peace deal been reached, ISIS would now be on the Golan Heights overlooking Israel.
“Had Syria made peace with us, the civil war would not have broken out,” he said.
Before the civil war broke began in 2011, Syria was a pressure cooker under Bashar Assad and before that under his father Hafez, Rabinovich said.
The hope was to release that pressure by forging a peace deal with Israel and the US. But when it came to the finish line, “both Assad’s never crossed it and the pressure cooker continued to boil,” Rabinovich said.
He was one of four former Israeli ambassador to the US on the panel that spoke to the American Jewish leaders about the ties between the two allies and the impact the White House has on that relationship.
“The Trump administration happens to be the friendliest administration, certainly in years,” said ambassador Zalman Shoval, who held the post in 1990-93 and in 1998-2000.
Ambassador Moshe Arens, who was in Washington in 1982-1983, agreed.
“The relationship between the US and Israel at the present time is better than it has ever been before,” Arens said.
Rabinovich said, “This is the first time in the history of this relationship that a right-wing Israeli government is outflanked on the Right by a US administration.
“We have to watch out not to be drawn into too intimate an embrace with [this] administration,” he said. Too tight a relationship risks the loss of bipartisan support in the US for Israel, Rabinovich said.
“We use to be on both sides of the aisle; now we are one side of the aisle,” he said.
Both he and former ambassador Sallai Meridor warned that shared values are not the same thing as shared interests.
Meridor recalled that during his first meeting with then-US president George W. Bush, he told him that Israelis loved him.
“He looked me and said, “I want you to know I do not do anything because I want people to love me. I do whatever I do because I believe in what I do.”
Meridor, who was in Washington in 2006-2009, cautioned that a very friendly president is best poised to wrench concessions from Israel.
“The myth is that Bush never pressured Israel because he was such a good friend. The truth is that only presidents who are great friends of Israel [like George W. Bush] have a chance to pressure Israel,” said Meridor.
Bush was able to sway prime minister Ariel Sharon to sign the US backed Road Map and to recognize that at the end of that process there would be Palestinian state, Meridor said.
“This could hardly have been achieved by any other president,” Meridor said.
Initially Israel didn’t believe that Bush was behind the Annapolis process, sure it was the brainchild of secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
“The president came into the room and made it very clear that he thought we had to go to Annapolis [in 2007]. So there were tough messages from the most friendly president,” Meridor said.
He also speculated that concern with regard to Bush was likely in the back of Sharon’s mind when he decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in the Disengagement in 2005.
“You have to keep good friends in many areas of America in order to protect Israeli interests. It is not enough to count on the president or the Congress,” Meridor said.