The Damascus Arab Summit/ Durban II

Update from AIJAC

April 2, 2008
Number 04/08 #01

This Update features two articles on the Arab League Summit held in Damascus on the weekend, which saw most Arab heads of state refuse to attend in protest over Syrian misbehaviour in Lebanon and coziness with Iran.

First up, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) has a good backgrounder analysing Syria’s stark choice at this Summit – regain status in the Arab world, or maintain its policies in Lebanon and close alliance with Iran and various terrorist allies. Syria clearly chose the latter, according to this analysis. For more on the implications of this, CLICK HERE.

Next up, the Jerusalem Post discusses the Arab League decision regarding the peace plan it has had on the table since 2002. The Post argues that the Arab League needs to understand why Israel has not embraced its initiative wholeheartedly, which mostly relates to its provisions suggesting a Palestinian “right of return” to Israel. It says the Arab League must be prepared to negotiate about the terms and implementation of the deal, rather than present it as a fait accompli, and suggests Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa come to Israel to settle the problematic points. For the paper’s analysis of what has to be done to see the Arab League really contribute to peace, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Israel reportedly sent 20 peace feelers to Damascus last year, but got only “disappointing” responses.

Finally, Abraham Foxman, veteran head of the Anti-Defamation League in the US, issues a plea about the forthcoming Durban II follow-up UN conference, scheduled for next year. He says that despite the brave decision of Canada not to be involved in the conference or the process, he does not see governments and NGOs lining up to say “not again” to “virulent anti-Semitism, not again to vile demonising and delegitimising of Israel, not again to incitement to violence against Jews, not again to the inversion of principles of human rights,” all of which characterised the previous conference in Durban 2001. He says, this time around, no one can claim they do not foresee what can happen when such conferences go off the rails. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Urging NGOs to follow the Canadian example on Durban II is Prof. Gerald Steinberg. Urging the Europeans to likewise act is Canadian Jewish Congress head Bernie Farber.

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BICOM ANALYSIS, 31/03/2008
Executive Summary

The holding of the 20th Arab Summit in Damascus offered the Assad regime a prestigious chance to move back toward the Arab mainstream. This, however, would have come at a price for Syria – which it apparently preferred not to pay. The key issue of concern among moderate Arab states is Syrian interference in Lebanon. Syrian actions in Lebanon cannot be isolated from Damascus’s broader stance of alliance with Iran and opposition to the US and its allies in the region. The Iranian-Syrian alliance, and its opposition to Israel, the US and regional stability is the central dynamic in current Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy. The hardening response of pro-western Arab states toward this alliance was reflected in their decision not to attend the summit. 

There is a growing sense that Syria has painted itself into a corner over the issues of the Hariri tribunal, influence in Lebanon, support for Palestinian Islamist terror groups and alliance with Iran. The indications, however, are that Syria is aware of the implications of its decisions, and is not currently seeking a way back.


The 20th Arab Summit, which took place over the weekend, was noteworthy mainly for the extent to which it showcased Syria’s current isolation in the Arab world. Events preceding and surrounding the summit also reflected the deep anger and frustration felt by many Arab governments regarding the current regional policy being pursued by Damascus. The key issue of concern was Syrian interference in Lebanon. But Syrian actions in Lebanon cannot be isolated from Damascus’s broader stance of alliance with Iran and opposition to the US and its allies in the region. This article will observe the background and key events surrounding the Damascus summit, and will go on to ask what implications these have for the Israeli debate on talks with Syria.

The Arab Summit: What happened?

The holding of the summit in Damascus clearly offered the Assad regime a prestigious chance to show Syria’s continued importance in the region. A successful summit, attended by senior Arab leaders, might have signaled the ‘coming of age’ of the Bashar Assad regime (Bashar al-Assad inherited the leadership of Syria from his father Hafez, on the latter’s death in 2000.) This, however, would have come at a price for Syria – which it apparently preferred not to pay. 

First and foremost, to move itself back into the mainstream, Syria would have been required to change course in Lebanon. Since the expulsion of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, Damascus has been actively engaged in seeking to destabilise its neighbour state. Saudi Arabia, the major regional backer of the Siniora government in Lebanon, holds Damascus directly responsible for the ongoing political impasse in Lebanon. Hezbollah, clients of Syria and Iran, launched a rolling campaign to bring down the Siniora government in January 2007. Since November 2007, Lebanon has been without a president because of (Syrian backed) Hezbollah and opposition demands for veto power in a future Cabinet. According to EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, Syria is deliberately disrupting attempts to secure the election of Michel Suleiman as president. Solana has also expressed concern that the ongoing assassination of lawmakers in Lebanon is gradually reducing the government’s parliamentary majority.[i] Solana called for greater international pressure on Syria. 

Looming over Syria’s Lebanon policy is the issue of the tribunal into the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. An initial report on the UN investigation into the killing found “probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials, and could not have been … organised without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services”.[ii] The Syrians have consistently denied all connection with the killing, and with the string of mysterious murders of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon that have taken place in the subsequent period. But the regime is understood to be close to panic regarding the possibility that the investigation could eventually ask for the extradition of senior officials. The tribunal is approaching the point of readiness to begin its investigation. Eleven Lebanese and foreign judges have been selected to conduct the investigation, and premises have been prepared for its deliberations.[iii]

The Syrian regime thus faced a stark choice:


1. Cease its disruptive actions in Lebanon – which would mean accepting the potential risk that the tribunal poses to the stability of the regime, and abandoning Syria’s long-held stance of non-acceptance of Lebanese sovereignty, in order to repair relations with the Arab states.


2. Maintain the alliance with Iran, and the support for Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations, as the best way to stand, if necessary, in defiance of international law over the tribunal, and to rebuild influence in Lebanon.

The Syrian regime has clearly chosen option 2. Leaders of major Arab states therefore chose not to attend the summit, in order to express their anger at the Syrian stance. Saudi Arabia sent a junior official.  Egypt, meanwhile, was represented by a junior Cabinet member. Omar Rifai, Jordan’s representative to the Arab League represented Amman at the summit. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh made a last-minute decision to send his deputy Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Lebanon did not send any representative to the summit. Around half of all Arab leaders chose not to attend the summit. Other Arab League member states whose leaders did not attend were Morocco, Iraq, Oman, Bahrain, Somalia and Djibouti.

Among those whose leaders did attend were: Algeria, the Comoros, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.[iv] Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in a press conference in Riyadh timed to coincide with the opening of the summit, held Syria responsible for blocking compromise to resolve the Lebanon presidential crisis.[v] (It is worth noting that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also intended the conference. His presence did not prevent the summit from voting in favour of the UAE’s claim on three islands currently controlled by Iran in the Gulf – much to Iran’s reported displeasure.)

Arab analysts are seeing the Syrian stance and the response to it as presaging a major strategic rift in the Arab world. Some have likened the emerging situation to the Arab Cold War of the 1960s, which saw the region polarised between nationalist, then pro-Soviet Egypt and conservative, pro-US Saudi Arabia. Wahid Abdel Megid, director of the Cairo-based Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, has commented that “This summit is taking place under the shadow of a deep Arab split which started at previous summits, but has now reached its peak with leaders unable to hold a dialogue at the summit level.” Explaining the background to the split, Megid pointed to the fact that “Syria is supported by certain Arab forces who want to change the face of the area into a more Iranian one against the United States.” The Egyptian state-owned media was scathing regarding Syria in the days leading up to the summit. Al-Goumhouriya asserted that “Everyone expects the summit to fail [because] most Arab countries won’t sign up to Syria’s lost bet on Iran taking up the leadership of the region.”[vi]

Significance of Syria’s choice

The events surrounding the Arab summit confirm the strategic nature of Syria’s alliance with Iran and with Hezbollah. It is clear that, as Syria expert David Lesch put it, “The big complicating factor [regarding US policy toward Syria] is Lebanon… And from my discussions in Syria – and I was there in early February – they’re not going to budge on that issue. So, this could be a long-simmering and long-standing obstacle to any sort of engagement between the United States and Syria.” Robert Malley, head of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East desk, placed the Syrian decision in a broader context: “For the past quarter century, Iran has been Syria’s most loyal, most dependable and, at some points, only ally… Damascus will not abandon this relationship for the sake of renewed dialogue with the US or an entry fare for negotiations with Israel.”[vii]

The current Israeli government has expressed its willingness to re-open negotiations with Syria. Both Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Military Intelligence Head Major-General Amos Yadlin support re-commencing talks with Syria (Mossad Head Meir Dagan is known to oppose this option). However, the latest reports indicate that repeated overtures made by Israel to the Assad regime over the last year have failed to bear fruit. According to an article in Haaretz, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has despatched around 20 messages to President Assad, attempting to gauge his willingness to re-open talks. Syria yesterday confirmed the existence of a secret channel of communication with Israel – via Turkey.[viii] The results have been disappointing, according to the report. While Haaretz did not include the details of the differences over the sides, they are likely to have been over Syrian unwillingness to include its backing of Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups (and, implicitly, its alliance with Iran) in the talks. The broader impression gained, according to the report, was that senior figures in the regime “are opposed to talks with Israel and are not interested in breaking off the alliance with Iran.”[ix]

Thus, the recent events surrounding the Arab summit confirm the solidity of Syria’s alignment with Iran, and with the various Arab paramilitary organisations which the two countries sponsor. This alliance, and its opposition to Israel, the US and regional stability is the central dynamic in current Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy. The hardening response of pro-western Arab states, meanwhile, was also reflected in their decision not to attend the summit. There is a growing sense that Syria has painted itself into a corner over the issues of the Hariri tribunal, influence in Lebanon, support for Palestinian Islamist terror groups and alliance with Iran. The indications, however, are that Syria is aware of the implications of its decisions, and is not currently seeking a way back.

[i] Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Syria defiant on Lebanon despite Arab summit,” Reuters, 26 March 2008.

[ii] Ian Black, “The ticking timebomb: UN Tribunal gears up to try Lebanon PM’s killers,” the Guardian, 27 March 2008.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “Syria shrugs off low summit turnout,” Now Lebanon, 28 March 2008.

[v] Barak Ravid, “Official: PM sent 20 messages of peace to Assad, but Syrian Pres. Disappointed us,” Haaretz, 30 March 2008.

[vi] Now Lebanon.

[vii] “Pundit prattle,” Now Lebanon, 29 March 2008.

[viii] “Damascus confirms channel of communication with Israel,” Jerusalem Post, 30 March 2008.

[ix] Ravid.  

© 2008 – BICOM

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A constructive role for the Arab League 

Jerusalem Post, Mar 31, 2008 20:54 | Updated Mar 31, 2008 21:58

Wrapping up its meeting in Damascus on Sunday, the Arab League threatened to “reevaluate” its 2002 peace offer to Israel. The plan is contingent, Secretary-General Amr Moussa warned, on “Israel executing its commitments.”

Actually, it is Arab League policy which needs reevaluation. Six years after it was tendered by the Saudi Crown prince, now king, Abdullah, Arab leaders still do not comprehend why Israelis haven’t enthusiastically embraced their initiative.

First, some context: The Arab League was founded in 1945, in Cairo. Its primary mission was to obstruct the emergence of a Jewish state anywhere in British-controlled Palestine. In 1946, the Arab League supported the intransigence of Haj Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, over more moderate Palestinian Arab voices. It then rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would have created two states – one Arab and one Jewish – living side-by-side in peace.

After the 1948 war, rather than reconcile with Israel, the League spearheaded the creation of UNRWA, effectively perpetuating the statelessness of Palestinian refugees. In 1957 it sealed their fate by rejecting appeals that they be resettled in Arab states, just as Jewish refugees from the Arab countries had been resettled in Israel. It was with the League’s imprimatur that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser created the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1963 – four years before the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli control. Then, in March 1979, the League suspended Egypt for signing a peace treaty with Israel. Cairo was not readmitted until 1989.

AND THEN, in March 2002, after nearly six decades of unremitting hostility, the League apparently changed direction and adopted the Saudi peace initiative.

But even this giant leap falls short. It demands Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines; acceptance of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital; and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

On borders, at least on the Palestinian front, it is common knowledge that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei are, right now, poring over maps, trying to come up with an agreement in principle which would presumably take effect only after the Palestinians stop violence, terrorism and incitement against Israel and both peoples approve of the deal.

Arguably, the biggest obstacle for Israelis in the Saudi plan is that it addresses the plight of Palestinian refugees by invoking General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948. Carried out in practice, it would inundate Israel – Jewish population 5.3 million – with 4.5 million stateless Palestinians. Few Israelis view this as anything but a recipe for the demographic destruction of the world’s only Jewish state. And yet the idea that an organization unambiguously created to quash the birth of a Jewish state, and long dedicated to that goal, would ever offer even the theoretical opportunity of “normal relations” – albeit on terms no Israeli government could possibly accept – should not be summarily dismissed. And it hasn’t been.

In March 2002, then foreign minister Shimon Peres declared Israel was prepared to discuss the plan; not as a diktat, but as a starting point. So it is really up to the Arab League to modify a fundamentally flawed offer by opening up negotiations with Israel. Let Secretary-General Moussa himself come to Jerusalem – where he would be cordially welcomed – to pursue such discussions.

Instead of reaching out, an Arab League in disarray has continued its hard-line, anti-Israel rhetoric. That’s easier than bridging internal gaps between Hamas and Fatah, and over Iraq, Lebanon, and Alawite-led Syria’s ever-closer melding with the Persian ayatollahs. Moussa had to make the most of a summit boycotted by the kings of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, as well as by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Salah. Hence his denunciation of invented Israeli “war crimes” in Gaza, and perhaps also PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s incongruent plea for League intervention to save “besieged” Palestinians. Comic relief was provided by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who helpfully pointed out that Arab leaders hate and conspire against each other.

With Damascus now assuming the Arab League presidency, it’s hard to see the organization playing a constructive role in ushering in an era of peace and reconciliation. Still, a good place to begin would be for Arab leaders to address Israel’s concerns about their March 2002 proposal.

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Durban: Not again

By Abraham H. Foxman

Haaretz, 20/3/2008

As the United Nations begins to gear up for another world conference in 2009 to review the outcomes from its discredited 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, governments and NGOs have a responsibility to say “not again.” Not again to virulent anti-Semitism, not again to vile demonizing and delegitimizing of Israel, not again to incitement to violence against Jews, not again to the inversion of principles of human rights.

This time there is no excuse; this time no one can say let’s just wait to see what happens. This time the world knows how the noble goals of a world gathering to fight the scourge of racism can be perverted and instead become a cauldron of hate focused on a single country and a single people.

I have often said anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem, it is a disease that strikes at the very essence of society. Nowhere in recent history was that virus of anti-Semitism more apparent than on the grounds and in the halls of the 2001 Durban Conference. Another world gathering that is allowed to dissolve into fits of hateful, racist anti-Semitism is simply not worth having.    

That is the courageous conclusion reached by the government of Canada which already has announced its decision not to participate in the Durban review conference. In announcing their government’s decision, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State for Multi and Canadian Identity noted they “had hoped that the preparatory process for the 2009 Durban Review Conference would remedy the mistakes of the past. We have concluded that, despite our efforts, it will not.” How sad and unfortunate that Canada may be right. The message from Canada is clear, “Not Again.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has tried to present an alternative approach to save the Durban Review Conference. He recently gave notice that France will be leading an effort to “remedy the mistakes” of the 2001 conference when he announced “the Durban conference in 2001 led to intolerable excesses from certain states and numerous NGOs that turned the conference into a forum against Israel, and no one has forgotten. France will not allow a repetition of the excesses and abuses of 2001. Our European partners share France’s concerns. France will chair the EU in the final months preceding the review conference. I say to you: If ever our legitimate demands are not taken into account, we will disengage from the process.” In my most optimistic moments, I am rooting for President Sarkozy to succeed.

Then I face the stark realities of a UN Human Rights Council that time and again evades its responsibility to address the worst human rights violations in the world focusing instead on its obsession with attacking Israel. I cannot avoid a UN Security Council with some non-permanent members who won’t even consider accepting a resolution condemning the deadly terrorism of Hamas. These are dispiriting certainties. Israel itself has concluded that it “will not participate and give legitimacy to the United Nations follow-up conference on racism, what is called Durban II, unless it is proven that the conference will not be used as a platform for further anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic activities.” Canada and France are showing the way for others to follow. They have said loud and clear the world should not give legitimacy to any gathering of nations where hatred of Jews and scorn for the national aspirations of the Jewish people are cloaked in the vernacular of human rights. They have told the world that a conference to combat the scourge of racism is no place to trade in the currency of hatred and bigotry against Jews.

The unwillingness of most in the human rights NGO community and their international funders to confront and denounce the atmosphere of anti-Semitism and demonization of Israel at the 2001 Durban Conference was dismaying and extremely hurtful to the Jewish community. Human rights NGOs have a major role to play in preventing this from happening again. This time, there is no way to claim they don’t comprehend what can happen when they stand by silently and allow a moral vacuum to be filled by irrational hatred. This time they can’t say they don’t understand their hopes to use the World Conference Against Racism as a legitimate high profile platform to have their issues heard depends on a conference environment conducive to civil discourse. And, this time they know it is in their power to ensure that the review conference not be used as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism or incite hatred against Israel.

Yet, as the 2009 Durban Review Conference preparations begin, we do not hear loudly and clearly the call of “not again” from these groups. If governments and NGOs can overcome the forces who want to have another anti-Israel, anti-Jewish hatefest under the guise of fighting racism, then “not again” will mean a victory for the cause of human rights. If they cannot, “not again” will mean following Canada’s lead.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.”

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