In a surprising move, a leader of Brooklyn’s large, generally hawkish Syrian Jewish community has lambasted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for refusing to talk with Syria, as pressure built on multiple fronts on Washington and Jerusalem to dialogue with Damascus.
Jack Avital, a longtime confidante of Ariel Sharon and chairman of the Sephardic National Alliance, told The Jewish Week last week he planned to publish an open letter to Olmert laying out his case against Israel’s rejection of such talks to the Syrian Jewish community.
"Maybe we should remind you," he chides Olmert in the letter, "that if any Arab leader is sending signs of peace (maybe the slightest ones) you should respond. You should immediately check his sincerity and seriousness. You do not have the moral permission to avoid him. You must do it for the sake of those you may demand to sacrifice their lives in case war commences."
The letter, notable for its unexpected source, is to be published in the Syrian Jewish community’s monthly magazine, Image. It comes as Syria’s leaders have issued repeated calls for peace talks with Israel without preconditions; as British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for talks with Syria and Iran to stabilize the Middle Eastóbreaking with his partner, President Bush; and as the congressionally mandated Iraq Study group, headed by Bush family counselor James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, prepares recommendations for Bush that reportedly include proposals to initiate contacts with Syria and Iran: proposals that may find a receptive ear in the new Democratic congress that will greet Bush next year.
Olmert and Bush have rejected talks with Syria, citing Damascus’ hosting of terrorist groups opposed to Israel’s very existence, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Their suicide attacks against civilians in Israel have killed hundreds. The U.S. and Israel have also demanded Syria end its support for Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shiite group against whom Israel fought a month-long war last summer. Israeli Consul General Arye Mekel said an end to Syrian support for these groups was a "precondition" for any peace talks. Bush, in addition, demands Syria’s cooperation in stabilizing Iraq, where U.S. troops are increasingly beleaguered.
But Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha indicated to The Jewish Week last week that any such actions by Damascus would be a product of peace talks, if successful: not a precondition for them.
"Once peace talks between Syria and Israel start, all issues will be on the table," said the Washington envoy in an interview at the Syrian Embassy last week. "We repeat: We are offering full recognition and full relations in this peace process. They [the Israelis] have nothing to lose. We are very clearly saying, we want to talk to you; we want to have peace."
He strongly distanced his country’s position from that of Iran, Syria’s ally, whose president has stated his desire to see Israel "wiped off the map."
"We had excellent relations in the past with Iran," Moustapha said when questioned about the alliance. "But it did not prevent us from seriously working on a peace agreement with Israel." Moustapha referred specifically to U.S.-brokered talks in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in January 2000, when Israel and Syria came literally within meters of an agreement on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. President Clinton later faulted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for failing to respond to Syrian flexibility then. Clinton blamed Barak’s fear of domestic political costs.
Moustapha stressed that restarted negotiations should be part of a "comprehensive package" that would resolve each sides’ outstanding issues. For Syria, he said, these include Israel’s occupation of the Golan, taken during the 1967 Six-Day War; Israel’s retention of the Sheba Farms area claimed by Lebanon; and an independent state for the Palestinians.
Pressed on Israel’s grievances regarding Syrian support for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, Moustapha reiterated his country’s commitment to achieving "full" peace. "My response has been implying what you’re asking," he said. "Israel’s leadership understands exactly what would be the outcome of a peace process with Syria."
The envoy’s comments echo those of his president, Bashar Assad, who has called for peace talks with Israel in at least six interviews with various media outlets since the end of the war in Lebanon this summer. "Syria is ready to open unconditional negotiations with Israel. We want a pacific solution for the crisis in the Middle East," Assad told the BBC last month. But in interviews with Arab media outlets Assad has also warned that in the absence of talks, Syria was prepared to go to war.
In 2002, the Arab League adopted a Saudi initiative offering Israel "normal relations" in exchange for Israel’s full withdrawal from occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, and the "return of refugees": a reference to Palestinians who were forced out of or fled their homes during Israel’s 1948 Independence War. Asked if the talks he envisioned would come under this umbrella, or be direct and bilateral, Moustapha replied, "They’re not mutually exclusive. There needs to be a Syrian-Israel peace track. But the conflict has always been about the Palestinians. There should be a comprehensive deal."
In Avital and his supporters within the Syrian Jewish community, Moustapha has found surprising allies. Even as establishment Jewish groups supported Bush and Olmert, Avital compared Olmert to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who rebuffed a 1972 appeal for peace talks from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Sadat launched the costly Yom Kippur War a year later, but reached a U.S.-brokered full peace with Israel in 1979 at Camp David.
"Look how much blood was spilled," Avital lamented. "Three thousand soldiers because of Golda’s response. The same thing is happening now with Syria. Will they have to lose more soldiers now to make peace?"
Avital argued that Sharon, a frequent guest at his home, "today would probably reach out to Assad."
The Syrian Jewish activist even seemed to endorse Moustapha’s stress on the need to include the Palestinians as part of a peace package. He called for immediate talks between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"Approach the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert," he appealed. "Approach them over the heads of Hamas."
Asked if Israel should even talk with Hamas, if necessary, given that it controls the democratically elected Palestinian legislature, Avital replied gruffly, "Why not? This attitude, that the Arabs know only force, doesn’t work anymore."
Avital lamented a recent Israeli bombing in Gaza that missed its intended target of rocket squads in an orange grove and instead killed 18 civilians asleep in their homes close by.
"The cost is just more revenge," he said. "The Lebanon war, just bombing civilians, this bloodshed, leads just to more revenge. … When a kid sees how a soldier does not respect his father, how does he grow up? With hate."
Out On A Limb?
It is unclear how much support Avital, a successful men’s clothing manufacturer, has for his activist stance among Syrian Jews: a wealthy, publicity-allergic and fiercely pro-Israel community whose large and handsome homes crowd the streets of Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood. For years those homes and community synagogues have been regular fundraising stops for Israeli politicians from the Likud Party and even further to the right. One surprised Syrian Jewish political activist said, "His reputation is as an ultra-hawk. That letter to Olmert will cause shockwaves in the community. This is a community in which Bush is very popular, and Fox News is viewed as too liberal."
But the activist, who would speak only on condition of anonymity for fear of what he described as Avital’s power and influence in the community, also noted that Avital has a history of "making overtures to Syria" with the community’s support.
"It’s his statements about peace with the Palestinians that are totally shocking," he said.
In fact, Avital’s history with Syria, and the community’s support for it, dates back to at least 2000. When Syrian President Hafez Assad (Bashar’s father) died in June of that year, Avital organized a community memorial service for him attended by Moustapha’s predecessor as Syrian ambassador. The community’s chief rabbi, Shaul Kassin, blessed the service with his presence: the ultimate endorsement for a community in which the senior rabbis have the final word.
In a paid New York Times obituary notice, Avital and fellow Syrian activists Sam Domb and Jack Kassin (Rabbi Shaul Kassin’s son) declared their "heartfelt sympathy" for Assad’s family, described him as "a great leader" and wished Bashar "strength to continue his success."
Avital said he acted then to show gratitude for the senior Assad’s 1992 decision to allow Syrian Jews still in Syria to emigrate freely after decades of restriction, and to even retain their property and assets in Syria, where they may today come and go.
"With the Arabs, if you do something for the father, they remember for a lifetime," Avital explained.
The memorial service strengthened a previously casual relationship with the embassy, said Avital. When Moustapha arrived in Washington in 2002, he promptly reached out to the community and was put in touch with Avital, who invited him to a meeting with other Syrian Jews at which he asked his wary hosts one favor: "I said, whenever you have a bar mitzvah, wedding, I want to be there," Moustapha related. "Since then, I have attended four weddings and one bar mitzvah."
In 2004, Moustapha took the relationship one step further: He invited Avital to organize a delegation of Syrian Jews to visit Syria, where they met with Assad and numerous other government, business and religious leaders. The delegation included members from some of the community’s most prominent families.
Avital was impressed. Assad, he recalled, "came to the door to greet us when we arrived for our meeting. He gave us very good respect, a warm embrace. People in the street gave us a warm welcome." Their visit was front-page news in the government-controlled press and led the TV evening news. The delegation also visited the Jewish community’s ancient cemeteries and old, now unused synagogues. "They kept them so clean" despite the Jews’ absence, he recalled.
The State Department supported the visit strongly, said Avital, and the U.S. ambassador in Damascus threw a reception in the delegation’s honor.
But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which opposes talks with Assad, had words of caution regarding Avital’s lastest stand, "I don’t know that he speaks for anyone officially.
I think many of the Syrian Jews would take quite a different view. He’s invested a lot in the relationship. The question is what for? What’s his agenda?"