Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, February 26th, 2008
By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI, Associated Press Writer
Mon Feb 25, 4:33 PM ET
PITTSBURGH – Israel and Palestinians will not reach a peace deal this year, and a recent Mideast peace conference in Annapolis was only "an exercise in public relations," Syria's ambassador to the United States said Monday.
Imad Moustapha said President Bush has no real desire to broker a peace deal and that there are powerful forces within his administration who believe "chaos is constructive" in the Middle East.
"I don't know who he is referring to," responded Tom Casey, a U.S. State Department spokesman. "I certainly know that we have serious and ongoing concerns about Syria's unconstructive role in the region."
The White House accuses Syria of harboring terrorists, supporting Hezbollah — a Lebanese group classified by the United States as a terrorist organization — and of allowing insurgents to freely cross its border into Iraq. Moustapha said Hezbollah leaders will remain active in Syria despite the mysterious killing earlier this month of one of the group's top commanders, Imad Mughniyeh.
Moustapha represented Syria at the Annapolis, Md., conference in November, and later expressed optimism that the talks could ease tensions between Washington and Damascus.
But in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, hours before he was scheduled to speak at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Moustapha said the United States only makes positive statements about Syria when it serves a political purpose.
"We believe that the whole Annapolis thing was an exercise in public relations," Moustapha said. The only thing that happened there was "people were smiling and saying 'cheese.'"
Moustapha added, "I don't think there is a unanimous belief among the administration, across the departments of this administration, that peace should be the path forward in the Middle East."
Palestinian officials are also pessimistic, he said, adding that they have told him no progress has been made in one-on-one negotiations with Israel.
Bush announced in Annapolis that Israel and the Palestinians would relaunch long-stalled peace talks with the goal of reaching a deal by the end of this year. Since then, high-level talks have been held, including several meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
No breakthroughs have been reported, and the talks have been overshadowed by increasing violence along the Israel-Gaza border and Israeli construction in areas the Palestinians want for a future state.
Bush is happy with Annapolis' outcome and has no "real enthusiasm" to pursue matters further, Moustapha said.
"They have now their photographs for their memoirs," he said. "The Syrian leadership does not believe that this year will witness any major movement."
He said Syria's investigation into Mughniyeh's killing in a Damascus car bombing is progressing. He said Damascus will allow Hezbollah to remain active because it is popular throughout the Muslim world, viewed by many as successfully resisting Israel.
Many Muslims and Arabs believe Hezbollah's resistance led Israel to end its 18-year occupation of south Lebanon in 2000. Many also believe Hezbollah was victorious in a 2006 war with Israel.
Hezbollah leaders have accused Israel of killing Mughniyeh and have vowed to retaliate. Israel has denied involvement in the Feb. 12 car bombing. Mughniyeh, who helped set up the Shiite guerrilla group, was one of the world's most wanted terror masterminds, accused by the West of killing hundreds in suicide bombings and hijackings in Lebanon and around the world.
Syria demands Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, as part of a peace deal.
Moustapha has been Syria's ambassador to the United States since 2004. At times, he has said he is the loneliest ambassador in Washington, because no one in the Bush administration will talk to him.