Rocket fired in Syria lands in Israeli Golan

A rocket fired in Syria as part of that country’s war struck Israel near the Golan Heights border.

No injuries or damage were reported from the rocket, which hit by the Quneitra crossing on Monday morning.

On Friday night a mortar shell struck Israel on the Golan, where a number of rockets and mortar shells have spilled over from the Syrian civil war in recent months and more in recent weeks.

Fighting in Syria near the Israel border was reported to be intense on Monday morning.

United Nations peacekeepers reportedly evacuated their equipment to Israel from Camp Faouar, the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force’s main headquarters, located in Syria near Quneitra, the only official border crossing between Israel and Syria. The equipment was evacuated through special gates opened by the Israeli military, the Times of Israel reported, citing Israel Radio.

Also Monday, a siren signaling incoming rockets sounded in communities on the Gaza border, but the Israel Defense Forces said it was a false alarm. No rockets have been fired from Gaza on Israel since a cease-fire went into effect on Aug. 26.


Syrian treated by IDF soldiers dies in Israeli hospital

An injured Syrian treated by Israeli soldiers on the Golan Heights border died in an Israeli hospital.

The dead Syrian was one of seven treated on the border Wednesday morning, Israel's Channel 10 reported. Two were taken to an Israeli hospital. The rest were repatriated to Syria after their treatment.

All of the wounded are residents of the Syrian-controlled central Golan Heights, Ynet reported. They are believed to be civilians.

Seven Syrian rebels entered Israel through the Golan Heights in February and were treated in Israeli hospitals. Six were quietly repatriated at an undisclosed location for their own safety; one was very severely injured and remained in the hospital.

Earlier this month Israeli soldiers provided medical care to four wounded Syrians, two of which were taken to Israeli hospitals due to the severity of their injuries.

Syrian rebels arm Palestinians against Assad

Syrian rebels said on Wednesday they had begun arming sympathetic Palestinians to fight a pro-Assad faction in a Palestinian enclave in Damascus – a move which could fuel spiraling intra-Palestinian violence.

Two rebel commanders told Reuters they expected their Palestinian allies to fight the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) which dominates the Yarmouk enclave – a one-time refugee camp turned sprawl of apartment blocks which is run by the Palestinians themselves.

“We've been arming Palestinians who are willing to fight…We have formed the Liwa al-Asifah (the Storm Brigade)which is made up of Palestinian fighters only,” a rebel commander from the Suqour al-Golan (Golan Falcons) brigade said.

“Its task is to be in charge of the Yarmouk camp. We all support it and back it,” he told Reuters.

Yarmouk lies at the heart of several southern Damascus districts which have seen heavy fighting between the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

The Palestinians would be expected to attack fighters loyal to PFLP-GC chief Ahmed Jibril, who Syrian rebels accuse of harassing and attacking them to support Assad.

“Now they (the PFLP-GC fighters) are targets for us, targets for all the FSA. All of them with no exceptions,” said another rebel commander who asked not to be named.

Syria hosts half a million Palestinian refugees, mostly descendants of those admitted after the creation of Israel in 1948, and has always cast itself as a champion of the Palestinian struggle, sponsoring several guerrilla factions.

But Syria's uprising has split Palestinian loyalties, with many ordinary Palestinians sympathetic to the uprising by their fellow Sunnis.

The Islamist Palestinian Hamas movement closed its offices in Damascus earlier this year.

Palestinians have in any case been riven by factionalism for decades, their differences exacerbated by the 1975-1990 civil war in neighboring Lebanon, where they also have a strong presence. Intra-Palestinian fighting in Syria could lead to similar tensions in Lebanon.


Residents at Yarmouk, home to about 150,000 Palestinians, said gunmen had been seen in the streets and some people kidnapped in recent days, eight of whom had been killed. It was not clear who was responsible.

A bomb exploded on Wednesday under the car of a Syrian army colonel in Yarmouk, although he was not in the vehicle, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. A Syrian rebel commander claimed responsibility, calling it a “gift to Jibril's people which will be followed by others”.

Syria hosts many Palestinian factions which fought Israel and also each other in the 1970s and 1980s. Some like Fatah, the group of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, fought Syrian forces in Lebanon during the civil war and its fighters still bear a grudge against Assad and his late father, Hafez al-Assad.

The creation of a Palestinian rebel group could mark an opportunity to settle historic scores with the Assad dynasty.

Palestinians officials in Syria refused to comment while a Palestinian official in Lebanon said: “We do not want any Palestinian involvement in the incidents in Syria, what is happening there is an internal matter.”

Activists estimate that at least 32,000 people have been killed in the 19-month revolt against Assad.

Additional reporting Oliver Holmes; Editing by Myra MacDonald

Rabbi sentenced to probation in money-laundering scheme

Rabbi Saul Kassin, a spiritual leader of the Syrian Jewish community in America, was sentenced to two years of probation for illegally sending money to Israel through a charity he operated.

Kassin’s sentencing Wednesday culminated a legal saga that dates back to the summer of 2009, when more than 46 individuals—including Kassin, the chief rabbi of Congregation Shaare Zion in Brooklyn; two rabbis from the Syrian Jewish enclave of Deal, N.J.; and a string of high-ranking elected officials and civil servants—were brought down in a federal sting.

Citing the rabbi’s age, U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano did not give jail time to Kassin, 89, though he fined him $36,750. The sum is in addition to the nearly $370,000 Kassin agreed to give up when he was nabbed in the sting, New Jersey’s largest-ever corruption bust.

When Kassin began to profess his innocence, Pisano reminded him that such a display could jeopardize his lenient sentence, The Associated Press reported. Kassin could have received 18 to 24 months in prison.

The AP reported that Kassin appeared frail and confused at the sentencing, requesting that his lawyers clarify the proceedings and lambasting the FBI and the court in a long statement he read aloud.

“You did all this to me under almighty God,” Kassin said. “Aggravation, sorrow, many nights I could not sleep.”

Kassin pleaded guilty in March to one count of unauthorized money transmitting.

According to the AP, he had used the Magen Israel Society, a charity he controlled, to deposit checks from Solomon Dwek, the son of a prominent Deal rabbi. Kassin then issued checks to other organizations Dwek requested, taking a 10 percent commission.

Dwek cooperated with the FBI after pleading guilty to $50 million in bank fraud, wearing a wire as he presented the illegal deal to Kassin.

Though he had pleaded guilty and came clean about his role in the money laundering, Kassin tried to backtrack at his sentencing, even demanding that the $367,500 he forfeited be returned to him, the AP reported.

“I want that money back, to donate it,” Kassin said. “They kept it for two years almost—it’s enough.”

Pisano denied the request, telling the rabbi he ultimately bore responsibility for any economic woe that came his charity’s way.

About half of the individuals charged in connection with the sting—dubbed “Bid Rig” by federal authorities—ultimately pleaded guilty.

Israel files complaint with U.N. over border infiltrations

Israel filed a complaint with the United Nations Security Council against Syria and Lebanon over the breach of its border by protesters.

The delegation said Monday it filed the complaint in the Security Council and with the U.N. Secretary General’s office for violation of international law.

The complaint comes after demonstrations on Sunday for Nakba Day, or Catastrophe Day, marking Israel’s achieving statehood. Israeli troops fired on protesters from Syria, Lebanon and Gaza who tried, and in some cases succeeded, in breaching Israel’s border.

Up to four Syrian protesters and up to 10 Lebanese protesters were killed during the infiltration attempts.

Also Monday, Lebanon’s delegation filed a complaint against Israel over the Lebanese deaths, citing “Israel’s disregard for Lebanese sovereignty and UN resolutions.”

Sarkozy’s summit gets every* Arab country to sit with Israel

PARIS (JTA)—While the French-initiated summit for the Union for the Mediterranean did not produce any major breakthroughs, French President Nicolas Sarkozy recognized one achievement.
“The fact that we were all in the same room is already a lot,” Sarkozy said at a news conference Sunday in the French capital following the inaugural summit, which featured the participation of every Arab country other than Libya with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Conference participants approved six projects and signed an accord that, among other things, talks of developing peace and fighting terrorism. All 43 nations also signed on to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Sarkozy underlined that much work still needed to be done to implement the projects.
Peace between Israel and Syria and the Palestinian Authority was a major focus of the event.
On Sunday, Sarkozy hosted a meeting of Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and a day earlier Syrian President Bashar Assad met with Sarkozy and the new president of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman, to discuss peace in the region.

Olmert spoke about his morning discussion with Abbas.
“It seems to me that we have never been closer to the possibility of a peace accord than we are today,” Olmert told reporters.
“We are living through an essential and critical moment,” he said, evoking the “very serious negotiations” currently under way.
Abbas said at the news conference that “it is in all of our interests to reach” peace. “We should achieve peace for the people of the Middle East in general, but also for peace in the world.”
The summit, which aimed to normalize Israel’s relationship with its Mediterranean Arab neighbors through shared economic and cultural projects, was considered risky due to the huge differences among the participating nations.
Referring to critics who questioned the feasibility of the French-initiated project, Sarkozy asked in his opening remarks Sunday, “Who can live without taking risks?”

He added, “The very idea of life is that: to take risks. The risk we are taking in Europe is to extend a hand of friendship to [Egyptian] President [Hosni] Mubarak and to invite Prime Minister Olmert as a friend. If the risk we are taking is just that, extending a hand of friendship, and trying to construct peace, then it would have been an even greater risk not to have taken that risk.”

At the conference, Assad sat opposite Olmert at a large, circular table set in alphabetical order so the disputing countries were not placed side by side. The leaders did not meet one on one, nor did they shake hands.

Afterward, Sarkozy dismissed rumors that Assad stepped out before Olmert’s closed-door speech to member states, insisting that the event went off “without an incident.”
But according to several diplomats and participants, Assad and Abbas left for meetings on the sidelines of the summit. Assad reportedly met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

An Israeli official said that Assad left the room half an hour before Olmert’s speech.

A European source reportedly confirmed that both Assad and Abbas were absent, but insisted their absence was “neither ostentatious, nor intended to create an incident.”

Mubarak wondered, “If Mr Assad has things to do outside of the plenary session, what is the problem?”
Following a Saturday meeting with Sarkozy, a visibly cheerful Assad told reporters that he wanted France to co-mediate any direct talks between Israel and Syria with the United States when a new American president takes office next year.

At a news conference Saturday, Sarkozy told reporters that he asked the Syrian leader to “bring him proof” that Iran was not planning to build nuclear weapons.

The next day Sarkozy told journalists that during his meeting with Assad, he discussed the Syrian leader’s potential contribution to the freeing of Israeli kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who is also a French citizen, held captive by Hamas since 2006.

Assad is in a position to speak to Hamas on the subject because of Syria’s close ties to the group.

Syria and Israel are holding indirect talks through Turkey. Both have raised the specter of direct talks but there have been no agreements.
Olmert said he hoped the indirect talks would be upgraded to direct talks “in the future,” but added, “The Syrian track will under no circumstances come at the expense of the Palestinian talks, which are of utmost importance to us.”
Assad’s visit to France, a first since Syria and France froze ties in 2005, marks his newly improved relationship with Europe.
In his opening remarks Sunday, Mubarak said, “This new phase we’re entering into must be an age of peace in the Middle East, and I would invite Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert to pursue their peace negotiations in order to achieve total peace, and in order to establish an independent Palestinian state and to open a new era of peace in the Middle East.”

Mubarak, who was presiding over the conference with Sarkozy, called for a realistic approach to Sunday’s discussions while maintaining a new and positive outlook for improved negotiations.

“We must not overlook the consequences of the gap between the countries of the South and those of the North,” he said. “We must take a realistic view of that gap, but we must also approach it in a new spirit with a new philosophy.”

Following the conference, Sarkozy congratulated “the Arab countries for their courage” in accepting the invitation to join Israel at the discussion table.
Until last week it appeared that a handful of key Arab states, such as Algeria, would not attend the summit because of Israel’s presence and fears that northern European nations would take an upper hand in the conference, which initially did not include all of the European Union.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and King Mohammed VI of Morocco sent senior representatives because of reported scheduling problems.

All the participants were invited to Monday’s Bastille Day celebrations, which at first incited an outcry from human rights activists who criticized Assad’s presence.

Sarkozy announced that the participants had adopted six projects that involve cleaning up the Mediterranean Sea, as well as creating maritime and land highways, civil protection programs, solar energy laboratories, a Euro-Mediterranean university and a business development initiative for the region.

“In four hours we couldn’t solve everything,” Sarkozy joked, “but now we need to develop [discussions] and go farther.”

Golan’s Druse live with hope and anxiety

Under a darkening sky in the northernmost corner of the Golan Heights, a small crowd gathers at the town square in this Druse village late in the afternoon and unfurls a few Syrian flags.

Sharon Cool on Assad Peace Offer

Once upon a time, a Syrian president calling for peace talks would have been met by Israeli leaders rolling out the red carpet.

But Bashar Assad’s recent overtures toward Israel, first made in an interview with The New York Times, have failed to excite Israeli decision-makers.

The chief of Israel’s military intelligence branch, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash Ze’evi, says Assad is serious and should be put to the test, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon doubts the Syrian leader’s sincerity and questions whether giving up the strategic Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria is as much in Israel’s interest as it once was.

At the same time, right-wingers in Sharon’s Likud Party who fear the prime minister may be sucked into negotiations against his better judgment are doing what they can to prevent talks with the Syrians.

As Israeli leaders weigh the pros and cons of reopening negotiations with Damascus, Ze’evi and other generals make a strong case for taking up Assad on his offer to negotiate.

They say Israel should exploit favorable geopolitical conditions that may not recur to get a good deal from a weak and isolated Damascus: America is in Iraq, Iran is being cautious and there is a lot of international pressure on Syria, especially from the United States.

Together, the factors add up to a window of opportunity that shouldn’t be missed, the generals say.

If Assad is not serious about peace, they say, negotiations will soon expose his insincerity — so Israel has nothing to lose.

The generals also argue that if the Palestinians aren’t ready for peace moves and Sharon instead opts for "unilateral disengagement," negotiations with Syria could soften the expected international criticism.

But Sharon and most of his Cabinet have doubts about the wisdom of renewing a peace process with Syria. The prime minister doesn’t think Assad is serious about peace, and even if he were, the price — the return of the Golan — is too high.

In recent Cabinet meetings, Sharon has made plain his reservations. When Ze’evi reported that Assad was serious, Sharon asked him caustically whether the Syrian president is still backing the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Palestinian terrorists in Damascus. Ze’evi acknowledged that Assad was.

Sharon also told his ministers that he rejected Assad’s contention that "80 percent" of the disputed issues already had been already resolved in prior rounds of negotiations between Israel and Assad’s late father, Hafez Assad. Those talks foundered on Syria’s demand that it be allowed to retain land at the foothills of the Golan, which it conquered in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence but which Israel took back in the June 1967 Six-Day War.

If talks with Syria are renewed, Sharon said, they must begin from scratch.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, was even more blunt. He argued that since his secret negotiations in the late 1990s with Hafez Assad, the "world had changed," and Netanyahu’s offer to cede the Golan in return for peace — an offer later repeated by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — was no longer valid.

Netanyahu spelled out why: After the American war in Iraq, he said, Syria had become an insignificant and isolated backwater, on the verge of expulsion from the international community. Thus, Netanyahu said, there’s no reason to make a deal that entails major Israeli concessions.

The argument was similar to that of the generals — but the conclusion was reversed.

There are other reasons for the government’s lack of enthusiasm. Government officials claim that it would be difficult domestically for Israel to negotiate concessions simultaneously on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks. Advocates of a Syrian move counter that the Palestinian process is not currently going anywhere.

More importantly, Syria today has considerably less to offer than it did in the talks with Barak four years ago at Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

At the time, the thinking was that peace with Syria would bring peace with the entire Arab world. That made sense because Israel and the Palestinians were going through a quiet phase and looking ahead to final status negotiations of their own. The general mood was one of imminent accommodation.

Now that Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a violent struggle, however, there is no way Syria could presume to deliver the Arab world.

Moreover, peace with Syria in 2000 would have nullified the dreaded "eastern front" and the prospect of a major land war against both Syria and Iraq. Now that Iraq has been taken out of the equation, Syria is in no position to launch such an attack on its own.

That means that Sharon has less incentive to give up strategic assets for a peace agreement.

Such dilemmas, though, are still a way off, since Sharon suspects Assad’s statements are aimed primarily at improving his image in Washington — and Sharon doesn’t want to be duped into helping him.

Assad, the theory goes, has been shaken by the proximity of U.S. forces in Iraq and by the Syria Accountability Act that President Bush recently signed into law, which provides for more sanctions against Damascus if it continues to support terrorism.

Assad’s peace talk is meant simply to get Washington to ease up, Sharon believes.

That reading is, to a large extent, shared by the United States. In late December, U.S. State Department official David Satterfield told a senior official in Israel’s U.S. embassy that Washington believed Assad simply is trying to influence U.S. and international opinion. Satterfield said that if Assad were serious, he would have taken steps like clamping down on terrorist groups based in Damascus.

Still, Israel continues to explore the issue, and it has asked U.S. and European diplomats visiting Damascus to relay their impressions. A Likud legislator, Majallie Whbee, also is due to meet Assad soon.

Whbee, a Druse who has played the go-between with other Arab governments before, is close to Sharon, but Sharon denies that Whbee is an official emissary.

Nevertheless, Likud right-wingers are worried. Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz’s much publicized announcement of new projects and settlements on the Golan clearly was designed to nip in the bud any chance of talks with Syria.

Sharon insists that Katz’s announcement was not coordinated with the government and was inaccurate, and he says it gravely harmed Israel’s image abroad.

Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, insists that no new settlements will be built on the heights, which Israel annexed more than two decades ago, and that the budgets Katz mentioned are intended to develop tourism on the Golan, not to stifle possible negotiations.

So where do things stand? Sharon says he wants tangible indications from Assad that he really wants to make peace, such as a crackdown on Damascus-based terrorist groups and an end the arms flow from Iran through Damascus to Hezbollah.

If Assad meets those conditions, Sharon will be on the spot — forced to make a major strategic decision, one way or another.

Fearful Assad Places a Risky Bet on Saddam

Syrian President Bashar Assad has inherited much of his late
father’s parochial paranoia, Israeli analysts argue — but little of his astute
political judgment.

In the first Persian Gulf War, the wily Hafez Assad lined up
on the side of the U.S.-led coalition, the analysts note, while in the second,
Bashar Assad seems to be doing all he can to bait the U.S. superpower.

It could end up costing him dearly.

Judging from his public statements, Assad seems convinced
that the Bush administration will not stop at Iraq, and that after a U.S.
victory in Baghdad, he could be next on the regime-change agenda.

Therefore, when Assad vilifies the United States and openly
aids the Iraqi war effort, he believes he is fighting for his life. In late
March, buoyed by what he saw as initial Iraqi success in resisting the U.S.-led
invasion, Assad explained the basis of his thinking in a fierce diatribe
against Israel and the United States.

The war in Iraq, he told the Lebanese newspaper, As-Safir,
was an Israeli-American conspiracy “designed to redraw the political map of the
Middle East.” In Assad’s view, the United States would take Iraq’s oil, and
Israel would become the dominant regional power.

“After Iraq, it will be the turn of other Arab countries,
and I don’t rule out the possibility of an American attempt to attack Syria,
inspired by Israel,” he declared.

When Assad took power in the summer of 2000, analysts
pointed to his Western education — he studied opthamology in England — as a
sign that he would be more modern and liberal than his authoritarian father. He
would open up Syria’s economic and political system, they predicted, and would
recognize the benefit of peace with Israel.

But such optimists have been sorely disappointed. An initial
political opening has been stifled, and the younger Assad seems even less
inclined to contemplate peace with the Jewish State than was his father, who at
least entertained negotiations.

Analysts speculate that that’s because Hafez Assad had
firsthand experience of Israel’s military might from the 1967 and 1973 wars,
while his son’s formative experiences — such as Israel’s response to the first
intifada in the early 1990s and its flight from southern Lebanon in 2000 — have
been of an Israel unwilling to risk its prosperity in military confrontations
and willing to retreat in the face even of light casualties.

Assad clearly sees the U.S. war against Iraq and the
Arab-Israeli conflict as part of the same apocalyptic struggle: It is, in his
view, a zero-sum game that will benefit either Syria or Israel.

As long as Israel exists, he said in the As-Safir interview,
Syria is under threat. He would never be able to trust Israel, he added,
“because it was treacherous by nature.”

But there’s more: Since “Israel controlled the United States
through its Jewish lobby,” Assad presumably can’t trust the United States

Given this worldview, it’s not surprising that Assad has
decided to gamble on Saddam Hussein. In helping the Iraqi war effort, he
apparently is hoping that the Americans will be stopped in their tracks and
will never reach Baghdad, let alone Damascus.

So Assad has kept Syria’s border with Iraq open, making
Syria the only country to allow volunteers and war materiel through to help

By late March, thousands of Arab — mainly Syrian —
volunteers were streaming across the open border to the Mosul and Kirkuk regions
of northern Iraq. Syria also sent some military equipment — night-vision
goggles, according to the Pentagon — to the Iraqi forces. Before that, in the
run-up to war, Syria reportedly purchased tank engines and aircraft for Iraq in
Eastern Europe.

Moreover, Assad is thought to be hiding illegal Iraqi
weapons that were spirited across the border to Syria before the fighting
erupted. In testimony to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in
late March, Yossi Kupferwasser, the intelligence research chief of the Israel
Defense Forces, claimed that Saddam may have transferred Scud missiles and
biological and chemical weapons to Syria before the outbreak of war.

In late March, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
warned the Syrians that the United States would not tolerate much more. He
called the Syrian shipment of night-vision goggles a “hostile act,” for which
the United States would hold Damascus accountable.

A few days later, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell
indicated that Syria would have to make a “critical choice” about whose side it
is on.

“Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and
the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more
hopeful course,” Powell told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on
March 30. “Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices and for
the consequences.”

Syria is not only proving to be Iraq’s closest supporter in
the war, it is also on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist states
and, according to Israeli intelligence sources, has by far the biggest
stockpile of chemical weapons of any Middle Eastern country. It produces
chemical warheads, as well as the Scud missiles to deliver them.

The terrorist organizations Syria hosts claim to have sent
hundreds of suicide bombers to Iraq to attack U.S. troops. Ramadan Shalah, the
Damascus-based commander of Islamic Jihad — which claimed responsibility for
the March 30 suicide bombing in Netanya — declared that the bombing was his
organization’s “gift to the Iraqi people” and that hundreds of his followers
were already in Iraq to fight “the murderer Bush.”

“This excessive self-confidence could not exist without the
approval of the Jihad’s landlord, the Syrian regime,” as one Israeli analyst

By far the biggest and most potent terrorist organization
Syria backs is the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah, which has an estimated 10,000
Katyusha rockets trained on targets in Israel and which has a proven
operational capacity all over the world.

Some U.S. defense analysts see Hezbollah as the foremost
terrorist organization in the world, more dangerous even than Al Qaeda.

To deal with Syria after the war in Iraq, one idea the Bush
administration apparently is contemplating is a U.S.-imposed land, sea and air
blockade of Syria until it dismantles its weapons of mass destruction, expels
terrorist organizations from Damascus and disarms Hezbollah.

Assad seems to be hoping that a U.S. imbroglio in Iraq will
save his regime, but he also has taken out some insurance against a United
States that emerges from the war as the undisputed power broker in the Middle

So far, Syria has helped keep Hezbollah in check during the
war and has relayed information to U.S. intelligence on the whereabouts of some
Al Qaeda operatives.

Assad could go further in search of U.S. approval by
introducing a degree of democratization. But he seems to fear that step as
opening a Pandora’s box that he can’t control, Israeli analysts say.

Assad’s Alawite sect, which rules Syria, constitutes only
about 13 percent of the country’s population. Exposing Syrian society to the
winds of change, he fears, might end up sweeping away his regime.

Assad’s father had similar fears. In his day, Syrian
dissidents compared Hafez Assad’s regime to Romania under Nicolae Ceaucescu,
dubbing him “Assadescu.”

Between U.S. wrath and the risk of liberalization in Syria,
Bashar Assad seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Â

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

U.S. at Center Stage in Syria Talks

They were called “Syrian-Israeli” talks, but this week’s second round of negotiations between the two countries was very much an American affair — in a storybook small town chosen by the White House, with President Clinton playing host and mediator.

So it was no surprise that when the talks were snagged over a disagreements over what to talk about, it was Clinton who held the negotiators’ hands, cajoled, nudged and pleaded.

Administration officials have concluded that only an unusually active American role can achieve closure in talks in which the two sides are close on the details of an agreement — but psychologically far apart.

That’s in keeping with the views of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who headed the big Israeli delegation that arrived at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in bucolic Shepherdstown, W.Va. on Sunday for talks held under an unusual shroud of secrecy.

The expanded U.S. role has risks, many observers say, especially because it could lead to expectations that Washington can’t back up with action.

And to critics, it merely reflects a peace process in which the Syrians have little interest in making peace with Israel, and all the interest in the world in cultivating ties with Washington.

“It suggests that even if an agreement is reached, it would be grudging,” said Daniel Pipes, a Mideast analyst who has criticized the current peace process. “The administration is giving Barak what he wants. And Barak is reflecting the Israeli body politic, which simply wants out, and is willing to give the Syrians anything they want.”

The setting for this week’s talks — a sequestered conference center ten miles from the nearest Interstate highway — was meant to force Israeli and Syrian negotiators into closer contact.

But the remote setting did not obviate the need for an overarching U.S. presence. That role quickly boiled to the surface on Tuesday, when the Syrians wanted to start with the question of borders — and the Israelis insisted on beginning with security.

That forced Clinton and his team of negotiators to center stage. After another round of presidential intervention, the “procedural hurdle” was overcome, according to a State Department spokesman.

But nobody expected that would be the last 911 call to the White House.

“We are still at least a dozen crises away from an agreement,” said Thomas Smerling, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace process group. “One of America’s jobs is to strike a difficult balance between stepping aside when things are going well — and stepping in when there are logjams.”

Also, he said, Assad’s driving desire to improve relations with Washington requires a more active U.S. role.

“Assad won’t even let his negotiators into the room with the Israelis without the Americans present at every step,” he said.

Israeli officials concede that the reclusive Syrian president has his sights set on Washington, not Jerusalem, but say it doesn’t make any difference as long as he is willing to sign a detailed agreement that includes what Barak deems sufficient security guarantees.

Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer working in Washington and a veteran of earlier Israeli-Syrian negotiations, said President Bill Clinton’s heavy investment in this week’s talks — and Barak’s willingness to come back for Round Two, despite the fact that he was negotiating with Syria’s foreign minister, not President Assad — shows how close the two parties are to an agreement.

Both sides want close U.S. involvement, he said, because “at the end of the day, the two parties will also turn their faces and maybe their hands to the United States to contribute its own share to the success of the negotiations — beyond their good advice.”

Administration officials deny they have made any specific commitments, but most observers agree that at least the implication that U.S. money, equipment and possibly peace monitoring forces will follow an agreement could be critical in getting the two sides over the last few hurdles.

Seale on Syria

Patrick Seale, President Hafez al-Assad’s official biographer, predicted this week that Syria and Israel would conclude a comprehensive peace agreement within one year. Since Ehud Barak was elected six months ago, the veteran British Middle-East journalist has played a key role as the nearest to a Syrian emissary shuttling between the chronically hostile capitals of Damascus and Jerusalem.

If Seale interviews the Israeli Prime Minister, he does so as a sounding board for Assad. If he publishes secret documents purporting to show that previous Israeli leaders promised to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights, he does so because Syria wants the letters leaked. If he is optimistic about the outcome of the talks launched by Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, so in all probability is Assad.

Interviewed on the eve of the resumed negotiations — the first between political leaders in the 51-year history of the Israeli-Syrian conflict, and the first at any level for almost four years — Seale suggested that Damascus would be least flexible on the territorial question. Assad wants Israel to pull back to the line of June 4, 1967, the day before the war in which Israel conquered the Golan. And, despite Israeli protestations to the contrary, he is convinced that the plateau was promised to him in its entirety.

Israel takes as its benchmark the international border, drawn between the British and French territories of Palestine and Syria in 1923. The difference between the two is geographically minuscule, but politically enormous. During and after the 1948 war, Syria edged 10 meters forward across the 1923 line to the north-eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main fresh-water reservoir.

Assad wants to return to the shore. Barak wants to keep the lake exclusively in Israeli hands — and he knows that a retreat to the 1967 line would make it infinitely harder for him to sell a Golan evacuation to Israeli voters in a promised referendum. The nearest to flexibility hinted at by Seale lies in the fact that there is no map of the 1967 line. It has yet to be drawn.

Seale believed that Assad would be more forthcoming in meeting Israel’s security needs, an indispensable condition for any withdrawal. There too, however, he argued that the Syrians would resist any Israeli presence, in their own or anyone else’s early-warning ground stations on the heights.

“That,” Seale contended, “is a sticking point with Assad. The Israeli look-out on Mount Hermon is hated by all Syrians. There it is, bang, on top of the mountain looking right down on the Damascus plain, listening to every telephone conversation in Damascus. They know who is sleeping with whom. That has to go. But the Syrians are saying you can have a perfectly adequate early warning with satellites, with aerial reconnaissance, with side-looking radar, with an international force positioned between the two parties.”

I began the half-hour interview by asking why Assad had suddenly decided to return to the negotiating table.

In the previous negotiations, during the premierships of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Seale said, Assad believed Israel had agreed to withdraw to the 1967 line and to the terms of a non-binding, American-brokered paper setting out the “aims and principles” of mutual security arrangements.

Assad was disappointed when Binyamin Netanyahu came to power in 1996 and repudiated both. His initial hopes, when Barak announced that he would follow in Rabin’s footsteps, were also dashed when the new Labor leader seemed to be repudiating the two points Assad thought were settled. “Assad got very angry,” Seale testified.

Hence the stalemate, which was broken last week when Washington came up with a new formula: The talks would resume “where they left off.” This, as Assad sees it, means back to the 1967 line. Barak may have a different interpretation. “Creative ambiguity” is the stuff of diplomacy. What matters is that both leaders were looking for a way to talk.

“The Syrians,” Seale insisted, “don’t recognize the 1923 frontier, and they say they have to be back on the lake.” That was particularly so if Israel wanted continued access to Golan water sources, another Barak condition for peace. “They want water from the Golan,” Seale said, “therefore they have to let the Syrians be up on the lake. There’s no way they can get one without the other.”

How much of a part did Barak’s intention of evacuating Israel troops from South Lebanon, unilaterally if need be, by next July play in bringing Assad back to the table?

“It was an enormous factor in bringing Israel to the negotiating table,” Seale replied. “Barak’s credibility is at stake because of the pledge he gave to the Israeli electorate. And he knows very well that the risks of unilateral withdrawal are very great.”

And Assad, who maintains thousands of Syrian troops in North-Eastern Lebanon and treats his weak neighbor as a Syrian province?

“Syria’s nightmare,” Seale conceded, “was that Israel would withdraw from Lebanon, but stay on the Golan. The Syrians would lose the point of leverage which South Lebanon is for them. So what’s been happening in recent months is that each side was threatening the other. Israel was threatening Syria with a unilateral withdrawal.

“The Syrians were reactivating the Palestinian Islamic jihad and the Shi’ite Hizbollah, saying to the Israelis that if they pulled out they were going to have trouble. And every Israeli knows that if they were to pull out, then hostile forces would move right up to the frontier and be able to reach points of Israel hitherto immune, and that Israel would have to respond. There would be escalation, and perhaps even war. Barak certainly didn’t want that.

“The breakthrough came when, in a very statesmanlike fashion, Barak said a few days ago, let’s leave discussion about South Lebanon to at least April. That was a very important signal to the Syrians to say let’s stop threatening each other, let’s reach a deal.”Could the Syrians swallow full diplomatic relations, with borders open to tourism and trade?

“Of course,” Seale said. “But if you ask whether it will be a cold peace or a warm peace, that’s where the link with the Palestinian track will become evident. If the Palestinians are not given a fair deal — for instance, if West Bank settlement continues, if confiscation of land continues, if the refugee problem is not tackled in a realistic way — then it’s hard to imagine Israeli tourists being welcome in Damascus.

The Mossad Spy Who Turned Bad

Graham Greene and John Le Carré have been there before: A shadowy source with access to the highest reaches of an enemy regime. A vain, furtive secret service handler with a chip on his shoulder, who insists that the informant will speak to no one but him. A steady flow of alarming exclusive reports, plausible but inherently uncheckable. An intelligence community more concerned with protecting its turf than investigating all the way when suspicions were first aroused.

This time, though, it was not Greene’s Havana vacuum cleaner salesman or Le Carré’s tailor of Panama who fed self-serving lies to his masters; it was the handler himself. And his phony warnings, over two decades, twice nearly brought Israel to war. Most recently, in autumn 1996, he predicted a Syrian attack. Military intelligence disagreed. Fortunately, its assessment prevailed, and the Mossad began looking again at its operator.

Yehuda Gil, a 63-year-old Mossad veteran, has finally confessed to his duplicity. He will be put on trial later this month, charged with supplying false information, and perhaps also with espionage and provoking an attack on Israel — although legal experts recognize that it will be harder to make the last two stick.

After first denying all, Gil led investigators to his house in Gadera, south of Tel Aviv, where they found a cache of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars that he had neglected to pass on to his source, reportedly the relative of a Syrian general. The investigators are still trying to trace another $150,000.

The story, revealed in a series of scoops by Ha’aretz’s military editor, Ze’ev Schiff, deals a debilitating blow to the Mossad’s reputation, already dented by its botched attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader in Jordan in September.

Israel’s renowned external-security service has had its failures before. The successes, its admirers like to say, are the ones you never hear about. Maybe, but the Gil affair is particularly destructive because it strikes at the credibility of Mossad information, its stock in trade in essential dealings with the Central Intelligence Agency and other friendly services.

“The Mossad’s mission,” the military affairs commentator Ron Ben-Yishai wrote in Yediot Aharonot, “is to warn about the possibility of war, to relay to the government information which can be used as Israel appeals to other countries for assistance, and to collate information which the Mossad can exchange for information in the possession of other intelligence agencies. The data supplied by the Mossad must be reliable. Now, it will be much more difficult for the Mossad to persuade other governments and intelligence agencies that it is, in fact, the best agency in the world for collecting information from human sources.”

Insiders acknowledge the damage but contend that it is neither permanent nor irreversible. “Our ratio of failures to successes over half a century is negligible,” Reuven Merhav, a former senior Mossad officer, told me. “The Gil affair damages an image which has already been greatly tarnished in recent months, but steps have been taken to neutralize the damage.”

Foreign professionals, he maintained, understood that such debacles could happen, to them as easily as to the Mossad. “Show me one serious intelligence agency, including the CIA, which has not suffered such a failure,” he said. “If you can find even one, we’ll send them straight to sing with the angels in heaven. None of us are angels.”

The question remains: What made Yehuda Gil, whose patriotism is not disputed, do it? His lawyers say that it was not the money, though he enjoyed the high living of a lightly supervised field officer. Politicians as diverse as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Labor opposition leader Ehud Barak deny that he was ideologically motivated, though he worked after retirement for retired Gen. Rehavam Ze’evy’s ultranationalist Moledet party.

The more plausible theory is a wounded self-importance. Gil immigrated to Israel in his youth from Libya. He speaks fluent Arabic and several European languages. By all accounts, his trade craft was superb. The Mossad is said to have used him to lecture its new recruits on the art of lying.

“Despite the disturbing reports,” one of his former Mossad colleagues, Gad Shomron, wrote in Ma’ariv, “I must confess I admired him. Yehuda Gil came up with the founding generation of Mossad field workers. Tales about his exploits were part of the heritage they tried to bequeath us. He was a professional, courageous and inventive, of the rare breed which helped the Mossad to acquire its reputation as the world’s leading intelligence organization in dealing with human sources….

“Yehuda Gil is one of those people whom the Creator blessed with the ability to pinpoint within a few seconds his interlocutor’s weakness. This talent, along with his high intelligence, diligence, amazing skills with language and his impressive patience, caused him to be promoted quickly.”

Not, it seems, quickly enough or as high as he thought his due. “Gil became embittered,” Shomron testified. “He believed the Mossad top brass did not sufficiently appreciate his talents.” So, according to this interpretation, he embellished his reports to remind them how good he was — and, after retiring in the early 1990s, he forced his way back by claiming that his Syrian source had come back on stream but would talk to nobody else. Yehuda Gil missed the action.

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