By Richard Allen Greene
December 18, 2002
LONDON, Dec. 18 (JTA) — British Jews and other pro-Israel activists have responded with shock and disbelief to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s visit to London.
During his visit, Assad denied harboring terrorists in Damascus, defended suicide bombings and dismissed a proposed conference on reform of the Palestinian Authority as misguided.
He also refused to accept a letter from the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization representing most British Jews.
“Assad’s visit demonstrated to everyone his real face and that of his regime,” said Shuli Davidovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy here.
“This was the Assad who hosts, backs and finances terror, a close ally of Iraq, a hard-liner and an anti-Semitic leader who is responsible for the death and injury of many Israelis,” she said.
During a four-day visit to Britain — the first ever by a Syrian head of state — Assad met Prime Minister Tony Blair, Queen Elizabeth and the Lord Mayor of London.
In a joint appearance with Blair, Assad denied that terrorist organizations maintained headquarters in his country.
“Of course we do not have in Syria organizations supporting terrorism,” he said.
“We have press offices. The press offices express the opinions of Palestinians,” he said. “In the region, they are called press offices and they are not called terrorist organizations.”
A number of radical leftist and Islamic terrorist organizations maintain offices in Damascus, including Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and two factions of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Estelle Gilston, who chairs the Zionist Federation of Britain, rejected Assad’s portrayal.
“That is not a satisfactory answer,” she said. “Everybody knows that those offices are not press offices.”
The son of an Israeli businessman kidnapped two years ago visited London at the same time as Assad to highlight the link between Syria and terrorists.
Ori Tannenbaum’s father, Elhanan, was kidnapped by Hezbollah operatives while on a business trip in Europe in October 2000. His fate remains unknown.
“We all know who the patron of Hezbollah is,” Ori Tannenbaum told JTA. “His name is Bashar Assad.”
Tannenbaum said he found the British government’s reception of Assad “disgusting.”
“I find it ironic that Syria, which recently held the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council, would not be held responsible by the U.N. for the ongoing captivity of my father in Syrian-controlled southern Lebanon,” he said.
Tannenbaum was among about 150 protesters who demonstrated against Assad’s visit outside Blair’s office on Monday while the prime minister was meeting with the Syrian leader.
The following day, the Syrian Embassy refused to accept the letter from the Board of Deputies.
The letter accused Syria not only of supporting terrorist organizations, but of using them as “an intrinsic part of Syria’s foreign policy,” which the board called “a matter of grave concern.”
The letter also condemned state-sponsored anti-Semitism in Syria, and Assad’s own expressions of anti-Jewish prejudice.
“Jewish communities throughout the world have been shocked by the virulent hatred which you personally have displayed toward the Jewish people,” the letter said, noting that Assad had compared Israelis to Nazis and — speaking during a joint appearance last year with the pope — accused Jews of killing Jesus and trying to kill the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
A book by Assad’s defense minister reviving the blood libel against Jews was a best seller at the Damascus book fair two months ago.
Such comments “are not acceptable and can have no purpose other than to incite violence toward, and hatred of, the Jewish people,” the Board charged.
Assad horrified Jews on Tuesday with a defense of Palestinian suicide bombing.
“What is the difference between Palestinians and Israelis?” he asked in a speech at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.
“The Israelis have actual bombs which they put on planes and missiles, and drop them on Palestinians,” he said. “The Palestinians do not have F-16s or rockets, so they have to go by themselves and kill Israelis. If you want to condemn the bomb, you have to condemn both sides.”
Assad’s visit is seen partly as a reward for Syria’s recent support of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which threatened Baghdad with “serious consequences” if it did not allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq.
Syria, the Security Council’s only Arab member, was not expected to back the resolution when it came up for a vote in late November. But it cast its supporting vote at the last minute, allowing unanimous passage of the resolution.
In addition, observers say, Britain is eager to keep Syria behind the U.S.-led coalition — or at least have it remain neutral — in the event of an attack on Iraq.
But British Jews say such strategic goals do not justify the red-carpet treatment Assad received.
Blair visited Damascus last year, where Assad humiliated him at a joint news conference by criticizing Israel in harsh language and praising terrorist attacks against the Jewish state.
Assad was better behaved during Monday’s joint appearance in London, but a day later he brushed aside a proposal made by Blair for a conference to push for reform of Palestinian institutions.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat this week welcomed the idea of the conference and accepted Blair’s invitation to send a Palestinian delegation. Arafat himself was not invited to attend.
Assad said the conference was part of a plan to nudge Arafat out of power.
The result, Assad charged, “will be turbulence in the Middle East. The result of reforms will be destruction. The result will be more turbulence and disruption in the Middle East. People are trying to deal with the symptoms rather than the causes. This is what I call the style of the ostrich that sticks its head in the sand.”
Gilston of the Zionist Federation said Assad’s extremist comments may, ironically, help bolster Israel’s case in Britain.
“There has been a nice change in attitude in the media, from an anti-Israel bias to more sympathy for Israel,” she said.
But even if there has been such a change, there was no visible shift in any of Assad’s positions during his trip — despite promises by Blair that he would raise the issue of Syrian support for terrorists with Assad.
“Assad’s visions and opinions, as he demonstrated in public, have not changed,” said Davidovich, the Israeli Embassy’s spokeswoman.
“He is still supporting terror and has no intention of taking any step toward peace and security in the Middle East.”