Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, July 13th, 2010
Specter and Assad meet, discuss peace broker role
By Sarah Freishtat · July 12, 2010
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sen. Arlen Specter in a Damascus meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad discussed a role as a peace mediator between Syria and Israel. JTA confirmed last weekend’s meeting, which was reported this week in the Israeli and Turkish media, with sources who helped organize the event.
Specter (D-Pa.), who is Jewish and has longstanding ties with Syria, first flew to Israel to see if Israeli officials wanted to convey any messages to Assad.
According to Ynet, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon told Specter that Israel was ready to resume talks without preconditions, that it did not plan to launch attacks on its northern border and that a Syria-brokered release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip, would be a goodwill gesture. Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza, is close to the Assad regime.
Specter then flew to Damascus, where he met with Assad. There was no official word about the meeting. It’s not clear who initiated the Assad-Specter meeting. His pro-Israel credentials are impeccable, but he has always counseled an openness to Syria. …
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the Syria Comment newsletter, said Specter is a natural choice for mediator because he has visited Damascus nearly 20 times during his time in office and he is Jewish. Landis said Syria wants to use diplomatic means to help stabilize and improve its economy and get back the Golan.
“Syria is finding out if there’s anything left in the Obama administration that could be useful to them,” Landis said.
Eyal Zisser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the status of Specter’s Israeli interlocutor — Ayalon, a deputy minister with no power — meant the Israelis did not take seriously the prospect of renewed talks.
“He’s just a respected American senator who comes to Syria often,” Zisser said. “Unfortunately there is nothing new there.”
U.S. asks Syria to support Palestinian-Israeli direct talks
ATFP World Press Roundup Article from Xinhua, July 12, 2010
The U.S. administration demanded Syria not to hinder the Palestinian National Authority’s (PNA) tendency towards direct negotiations with Israel, local news website Syria Now reported on Monday. A well-informed source confirmed that Washington asks Damascus, through U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, not to hinder the PNA tendency towards direct negotiation at a time when the Palestinian side showed hesitation over the results of the indirect talks and Arab League chief Amr Moussa declared that those talks have failed….
From the latest report by Conflicts Forum
Palestinian sources tell us that the US ‘proximity talks’ are stuck on the borders issue with Israel demanding land swaps on a 5 – 1 basis in Israel’s favour, and the US suggesting a 3 -1 basis. This represents a regression rather than progression: Israel had earlier accepted a 1:1 basis. It means that that the talks have achieved almost nothing of substance.
Stephen M. Walt, “With friends like these. . .” Foreign Policy
Syrian secularism: a model for the Middle East: Westerners don’t see that Syria’s embrace of diversity is a crucial bulwark against extremism.
By Ahmed Salkini / July 13, 2010 Christian Science Monitor
….Secularism is often defined as “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” Syria defines it differently – not in terms of “rejection,” or even “tolerance,” but in terms of “embracing” all religions and “taking pride” in a diverse heritage.
While some countries in the Middle East tout themselves as a state for one religion (the Jewish State), Syria prides itself on being a state for all religions – and no religion. It is this formula that defines the true Syrian identity.
The Syria I grew up in embraced everyone. My own father is a decorated veteran of the 1973 war against Israel. Yet, when his first child was born after the war – and after four previous heartbreaking miscarriages – it was a Syrian Jewish doctor in whose hands he entrusted my life. I owe my life to that doctor, who saved me after a complication during infancy that nearly resulted in my death.
My father was no exception. Syria’s Jewish community was historically among the most successful, with clients and friends from across Syria’s diverse ethnic and religious social fabric.
The Syrian Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, is such an integral part of our society that Pope Benedict XVI extolled Syria as “an example of coexistence and tolerance to the world.” Indeed, there are more than 13 Christian denominations in Syria.
Still, our history is not one of unscathed harmonious coexistence. We have seen our share of sporadic internal conflict. Such incidents, however, were anomalies that said less about Syria and more about the human tendency to act according to brute instinct during times of tension…..
Securing secular strongholds, such as Syria, is imperative not only for the peoples of the region, but also to the national interests of the US, Europe, and all major powers…. Syria faces several challenges, including retrieving the Israeli-occupied Golan and improving the standard of living for all Syrians. Achieving both is a matter of time: Freeing the Golan is inevitable, and the economy is on a strong upswing. Losing our secular identity to the forces of extremism, though, would be an irreversible and existential peril.
U.S. Calls On Syria To Honor Human Rights Obligations: The White House released a statement by National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer condemning Syria’s conviction and sentencing of two prominent human rights lawyers: Haitham Maleh on July 4, and Mohannad al-Hassani on June 23. The statement also condemned the re-arrest and charging of Ali Abdullah, a rights activist and member of the Damascus Declaration’s National Council. Sec. Clinton issued parallel remarks condemning Maleh’s conviction, stating that the ruling “is an example of Syria’s failure to comply with minimum international human rights standards.” Both sets of comments called on Syria to release its political prisoners.
Syrian president to mark 10 years in power
Some economic reforms achieved but need for political and social improvements
Alistair Lyons, Reuters, July 12, 2010
Although Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has managed to liberalise his country’s stilted economy to some extent, he has not been as successful with its politics.
His first decade in power, a milestone he will pass on Saturday, is ending more repressively than it began….A military court gave 79-year-old lawyer Haitham Al Maleh a three-year jail term last week for “weakening national morale”. He was arrested last year after renewing calls to dismantle the 1963 emergency law that bans all opposition to the Baath Party.
In June, another lawyer was jailed on the same charges and a writer was re-arrested a day after completing 2 1/2 years in prison. Five opposition figures were freed after serving similar sentences. Former parliamentarian Riad Seif remains behind bars.
“Assad is sending a message that he doesn’t care about human rights and political reforms in Syria and that he doesn’t think the international community cares or will sanction him on that,” said Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch Director in Beirut.
Damascus has acquired a glossy appearance in the last 10 years, with a sprinkling of boutique hotels, chic cafes and shopping malls, along with private banks and construction projects….
“The government undoubtedly assumes that by keeping a tight rein on the people and maintaining clear red lines, it will face less trouble in the long run and fewer people will go to jail,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University.
“Syria is surrounded by countries that have been plagued by long civil wars and tough insurgencies,” he said, citing Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Syrian security has concluded that it cannot risk relaxing controls.”…..Assad, who survived intense US pressure under ex-President George W. Bush, has emerged unbowed and feeling vindicated.
“The international pressure on Syria was never about human rights,” Houry said. “In the Bush years there was clearly more criticism of its human rights record, but it was often part of a campaign that had broader interests and the Syrians knew that.”
Upswing in Assad’s fortunes
In the last two years, Assad has forged closer ties with Iran, Turkey and Qatar, mended fences with Saudi Arabia and revived much of Syria’s influence in Lebanon, keeping links with Hezbollah there and with the Palestinian Hamas movement.
US President Barack Obama has sought to engage Syria and enlist its help in stabilising Iraq and in regional peace moves, although Congress has yet to confirm an ambassador to Damascus.
Regardless of which American President is in power, Assad seems in no hurry to ease up on his domestic critics, who pose no credible challenge to his now well-entrenched authority.
“In reality, Syria’s touch regarding human rights is not a function of administrations in Washington,” Murhaf Jouejati, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in the US capital, said.
“Rather, Syria’s organising principle seems to be: it’s better to be feared than to be loved. More economic space will not necessarily translate into improved human rights.”….
“The Syrian regime argues that it provides precious security and stability and that it has protected its minorities and secular freedoms better then other Arab states,” Landis said.
“It is hard to know whether these arguments are real and based on a judicious assessment of local realities, or simply self-serving justifications for clinging to power.”
….Palestinians are insisting that talks pick up where they left off. They also want Israel to halt settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
It’s unclear if they’ll get either. Netanyahu, who has been calling for Palestinians to resume talks, is signaling a desire to revisit some issues and wants no “preconditions” to the talks. That makes Palestinians wonder whether Netanyahu is ready to make a deal or just wants to restart talks to get the Americans and international community off his back.
Israeli Finance Ministry explains recent IDF-sourced Hezbollah stories
July 11, 2010 by Didi Remez (Thank you Didi. This explains a lot. The Syrians interpreted this softening the ground for a possible strike on Hizbullah.)
Why the sudden spate of Israeli-sourced publications on Hezbollah’s military power?
Israel’s shocking discovery of Hezballah presence in….Lebanon. Believe it or not!
This morning (July 11 2010), Maariv provided a mundane (by Israeli standards) explanation from the Finance Ministry:
“it’s interesting how every time the military budget is on the table, they release from the stocks Hezbollah’s missile array and expose sensitive classified material”
[Headline] Finance Ministry: Barak most expensive Defense Minister ever
[Sub-headline] The battle for the defense budget goes ad hominem; senior Finance Ministry officials: The IDF is even using Hezbollah to prevent cuts
Ben Caspit, Maariv, July 11 2010 [page 7; Hebrew original here and at bottom of post]
“Ehud Barak is the most expensive defense minister in Israel’s history”; “The IDF is impertinently disregarding all of the Brodet Commission’s findings, while deceiving the public”; “it’s interesting how every time the military budget is on the table, they release from the stocks Hezbollah’s missile array and expose sensitive classified material,” — these are just some of the harsh statements that were heard over the weekend among senior Finance Ministry officials and directed against the IDF and the security establishment.
A brutal struggle over the Defense Ministry’s budget is expected next week…..
Israeli Military Finds Flotilla Killings Justified
By: Ethan Bronner | The New York Times
Israel may put limits on citizenship for converts
(By Janine Zacharia, The Washington Post)
JERUSALEM — An Israeli parliamentary committee on Monday advanced a bill that could lead to lack of recognition for conversions to Judaism performed by rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements. …. The bill “delegitimizes most of North American Jewry” and brings back the question of “who has the authority to determine someone’s Jewish identity,” Wernick added, noting that 85 percent of American Jewry is affiliated with non-Orthodox branches of Judaism.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordon could lose its pecuniary aid from the United States should it continue to enhance its nuclear program without cooperation with Israel, Israeli news source Ynet reported.
Amman ignored Israeli requests to be involved in the extraction and enrichment of uranium which prompted the threat from Washington. The U.S. and Jordan discussed Jordan’s nuclear plan for six months, but the Jordanians were unable to obtain US approval. … the Jordanian economy is hinged on American aid which limits its ability to hold its ground in talks with Washington. This year, the US transferred at least $665 million during the first half of the year, over half of which was for financial aid and the rest for military aid. King Abdullah condemned Israel for impeding his country’s efforts in its nuclear program last month. The king told the Wall Street Journal that France and South Korea were being persuaded by the Israeli government to not sell nuclear technologies to Jordan. He added that Israeli-Jordanian relations have sunk to a point they have not been since the two countries signed a peace agreement after being in a state of war for nearly half a century.