Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

Hoenlein said the meeting Monday was at the invitation of Syria and not, as had been reported originally by the Israeli media, at the behest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I went to Damascus on an important humanitarian issue to the Jewish people," Hoenlein told Haaretz. "Netanyahu did not ask anything from me, and any attempt to link me to the diplomatic process with Syrian is manipulation." He said the solo trip was an effort to protect synagogues.

On Tuesday Hoenlein told The Jewish Week he didn’t know who leaked word of the low-key trip. He visited Syria once before while serving as a Middle East specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “It was not a new experience,” he said. “I’ve met with Arab leaders before.”

He said the meeting was “not about instant gratification but about getting a look at things to see in the longer term what we can do to help.” He characterized Assad as just “a guy who puts his pants on one leg at a time.”