J'lem underwhelmed by Syrian overtures

Assad confidante: Talks a "historic opportunity;" Official: We've heard this type of thing before.

imad mustafa 224.88 (photo credit:  )
imad mustafa 224.88
(photo credit: )
Israeli diplomatic officials were not overly impressed Monday by a seven-minute interview Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustafa gave to Americans for Peace Now, in which he called for "an end to the state of war." "We have heard this type of thing from the Syrian ambassadors before in places like Washington and London," one senior diplomatic official said. "But why doesn't Syria's ambassador in Cairo say the same thing? Why do we not hear it from others, from Damascus? They are speaking to their audience in the West, giving them what they want to hear. They are not speaking to us." Another diplomatic official said the Syrians were "playing a double game. They are interested in a breakthrough with Washington, not with us. They want the process, not peace." Mustafa, considered a close associate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said in a webcast interview placed on the Americans for Peace Now (APN) Web site on Saturday night that if Israel wanted peace with Syria and Lebanon, "if they want the normalized relations they are looking for, security on their northern border, they cannot have this while they continue to occupy our Golan." Mustafa said there was presently a "historic opportunity" to make peace not only with Syria and Lebanon, but also with the whole Arab world, since "we believe that Syria plays the role of the gatekeeper between Israel and the rest of the Arab world." The ambassador said it was necessary for the US to become actively involved in the diplomatic process between Israel and Syria. Peace, he said, is a "great achievement" that will need "guarantees." "[Peace] needs a world power like the United States of America to play an active role, not necessarily in negotiating the details, but in providing guarantees, and helping create the momentum that will actually lead to signing the peace agreement and implementing it," he said. Mustafa said Damascus had the "will and the vision" for peace, and that "the onus is on the Israelis... to respond in kind to our initiative and prove that they also are willing to do what it takes to make peace with their northern neighbors. "We have consistently had one message to the Israelis: We want to make peace, we believe in a fair and comprehensive peace with you." Israel, he said, was the wavering party - sometimes interested in talks, other times not. Mustafa said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, at the beginning of his term, had not been interested in talks with Syria, but has now changed his position, "and we are very happy about this change in his position." When asked what steps both sides could take to generate more public support for a peace deal, Mustafa said: "This is the State of Syria telling the State of Israel we desire to end the state of war between us, to conclude peace between two states, to recognize each other and to live as peaceful neighbors with each other within a normalized context." The fourth round of indirect talks between Israel and Syria, with Turkey as the mediator, is scheduled to take place this week in Turkey. Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now in Washington who set up and conducted the interview with Mustafa, said he had been asking the Syrian envoy to do the webcast for some time. Nir said he knew Mustafa from his time as a reporter for The Forward newspaper, for which he once interviewed the ambassador. "He really has been saying these things, talking in this tone, for quite some time," Nir said. "I do think there is an attempt to reach out to the Israeli public and reassure it that the peace overtures are for real, and that Syria is not only interested in the peace process, but actual peace. And I think part of the motivation has to do with Syria wanting to realign itself with the West." When asked why, if Mustafa was interested in reaching out to the Israeli public he did not talk to the Israeli public, but rather to an American Jewish organization, Nir said the Syrians have consistently seen any interview to the Israeli press as part of a normalization process that they believe comes after negotiations for the Golan Heights, not before or during them. Moshe Maoz, a professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, downplayed the importance of Mustafa's comments, saying they were "more of the same." "This is a Syrian effort to show that they want an agreement with Israel so they can be accepted in Europe, and in the US," he said, adding that it was also probably an attempt to push Israel into a corner. Mustafa, whom Maoz said he had met on a number of occasions, is a friend of Assad's, and his comments were "certainly coordinated" with the Syrian president. "No Syrian official would say a word without Assad's approval," he said. "It is important for the Syrians to show the US that they are interested in an agreement," Maoz said. "They are throwing the ball in our court, but this is not a turning point."