Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, has returned from a trip to Damascus where he met with Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. Hoenlein, in a brief interview with Politico today, said that he met with Assad “not as a negotiator or a mediator” but to “have discussions about humanitarian issues.”
“I am for four decades involved in humanitarian issues and concerns, and we held discussions about humanitarian issues,” Hoenlein said, declining to confirm whether among the issues discussed was Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who is being held hostage by Hamas.
“People know my word is my word and I am not discussing what we talked about,” Hoenlein said. Hoenlein said that he traveled to Damascus 10 days ago.
Israel Channel 10 reported today that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu had sent Hoenlein as an emissary to Damascus.
“Syria is very complicated place and an important country in region, and it’s important to see what can be done in the future,” Hoenlein said. “I meet with a number of Arab leaders, if they trust you, they talk to you. I don’t hide my agenda or what I am or what I believe.”
Syria analyst David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the paradigm of Israeli prime ministers sending private American envoys to Damascus has a precedent, noting that in the late 1990s Netanyahu sent American Jewish philanthropist Ron Lauder to Damascus as his emissary.
Schenker said Israel employs the (secret American) envoy model because Syria won’t hold direct negotiations with the Israelis.
He also interpreted Hoenlein’s description of his trip as a “humanitarian mission” as suggesting the trip had less to do with Netanyahu exploring a Syria-Israel peace track than trying to secure Shalit’s release.
“It doesn’t appear to me that the Israelis believe that it is a particularly opportune time for peace negotiations with Syria,” Schenker said, noting reports in the past year of Syria allegedly sending increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Hizbollah in Lebanon.
At the same time, Schenker added, “there are smart people who believe that Syria is so driven by the desire to improve its economy that it needs better relations with the United States, and that a peace treaty with Israel is a way to restore relations with Washington.”
President Barack Obama announced last week that he was recess-appointing American diplomat Robert S. Ford to serve as U.S. ambassador in Syria. Ford will be the first U.S. ambassador in Damascus since 2005.