So there was Israel’s figurehead president, Moshe Katsav, at the Pope’s funeral in Rome, reaching out to shake hands not only with Iranian President Muhammad Khatemi but also with Syria’s Bashar al-Asad.
(That’s one thing big state funerals are excellent for: throwing unlikely seatmates close to each other.)
The BBC, citing israel radio, reported that,
- Mr Katsav first shook hands with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as the funeral ceremonies began.
The Syrian president was seated one row behind Mr Katsav.
The report said Mr Assad later initiated a second handshake as the funeral ended.
Mr Katsav, who was born in Iran, is also reported to have exchanged words in his native Farsi with the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami.
Actually, Katsav and Khatemi come from the same hometown, Yazd.
Later, Katsav, who has no executive power but is reported to be widely respected in Israel, told a web-reporter for the Israeli daily Maariv that he had
- urged the country’s leaders to take up a Syrian offer to renew peace talks.
Moshe Katsav rejected Israeli official objections which said Syria’s overture transmitted via UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen was insignificant.
“In my opinion it is important and worthwhile to thoroughly check out the intentions of (Syrian President) Assad,” he told the Maariv daily.
Mr Assad said he was willing to resume talks with Israel without conditions.
Well, that’s from the BBC’s renedering of the story.
A return to Israeli-Syrian negotiations? Who knows? The two parties got very close indeed to a final peace agreement back when Rabin and Peres were prime ministers in Israel, in 1994-96. In 1994 Rabin gave the Clinton administration an undertaking called “the pocket” that informed the Americans that actually, deep down, his government was indeed ready to withdraw from all the territory of Syrian Golan that Israel had held under military occupation since the June war of 1967– though in return for a full peace and some fairly severe disarmament conditions that Syria would have to abide by.
Then, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist (November 1995). Then, Peres somewhat seriously misplayed his political hand and lost the election of June 1996. Then, Bibi Netanyahu took “the pocket” off the table. (That much, you can read about in my 2000 book that covered the negotiations from 1991-96.)
Then, in 1999, Mr. Wise-Guy Ehud Barak was elected PM in Israel. However he was just a little too big for his boots, that one, and thought he could pull something off with the older President Asad by sort of pretending to put “the pocket” back on the table, but actually not doing so. (He’d skimmed a vital hundred-meter-wide strip off what he was prepared to “give back” to Syria, running around the northeast segment of the Sea of Galilee/Lake Kinneret. Did he think Hafez al-Asad wouldn’t notice the difference?)
Well, so then Hafez al-Asad keeled over and died. Ehud Barak was such an incompetent pol that he completely lost his ruling coalition in almost record time for Israel and then lost an election to Ariel Sharon…. And there things have stood till now.
I personally don’t expect a big change. But I’d love to be proved wrong.