New forum to press gov't on Syria talks

Organization: Ignoring peace negotiations with Damascus "irresponsible gamble."

amnon lipkin-shahak  (photo credit: Courtesy)
amnon lipkin-shahak
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An organization aimed at mobilizing Israeli public opinion to pressure the government into entering negotiations with Syria will be launched Sunday in Jaffa. The group, an initiative of author Sami Michael and David Sasson, an Iraqi-born Israeli businessman who lives in London, will include a number of public figures such as former chief of General Staff and minister Lt.-Gen (res.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former Shin Bet head Ya'acov Perry and former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel. The Next Century Foundation, a British-based NGO that promotes informal "track-two" diplomatic initiatives, is also involved in the new forum. The move comes two weeks after reports that Liel and Syrian-born American businessman Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman held talks between 2004-2006 under the auspices of the Swiss Foreign Ministry and drew up a "non-paper" in an attempt to lay the foundations of a future Syrian-Israeli peace deal. Swiss President and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey confirmed last week that the informal talks were held under Swiss auspices. Sasson said that in recent weeks, Mark Hambley, a former US ambassador to Lebanon and Qatar who recently met with government officials in Syria, had also met with Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh and Education Minister Yuli Tamir in Israel. Likewise, Sasson said, Sneh and Tamir met with a former adviser to the kings of Qatar and Oman who was also recently in Israel. Liel said an organization to lobby public opinion was made necessary by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "brutal response" to his talks with Suleiman. "If the government is not willing to check Syria's seriousness, there is a need for public pressure," Liel said. When the initiative became public, Olmert dismissed it as "the private initiative of a person who talked to himself." Acknowledging that two-thirds of Israelis came out against withdrawing from the Golan Heights in a recent opinion poll, Liel said, "Public opinion can change." He said that with the Palestinian track at a complete standstill, the momentum generated by the Gaza disengagement was being "squandered," and that talks with Syria would be a good way to restart this momentum. "At least there is a need to clarify what we heard from the Syrians," Liel said. Liel said that in the near future he would brief the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on his contacts, and that it was likely that the panel would invite Suleiman to appear as well. The new forum will issue a statement Sunday saying, "The time has come to respond seriously to the signals that are coming from Syria. Since the day the State of Israel was founded, we have regarded Syria as the most stubborn and determined enemy endangering our existence. And now, after bitter wars and conflicts between us, there are hints coming from Syria that show a desire to open a new page, a page of reconciliation for political settlement." According to the statement, "Ignoring the conciliatory initiative with Syria would be an irresponsible gamble with the future of the State of Israel. Out of concern for our existence, and out of concern for the next generation and the generations after that, we must reexamine our attitude regarding the border with Syria as one of eternal enmity and war." Saying that Israel gave up Sinai for a peace with Egypt that has withstood the turmoil in the region, the declaration calls on the government to "listen to the voices that are making themselves heard from Damascus. Peace with Syria means peace with the region in which we live. The price of peace is much cheaper than the bitter and destructive price of war."