Israeli-Arab sojourn to Syria takes unexpected twist

The delegation set off last Friday for what was the second visit by leading Israeli Arabs to Damascus since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. The previous visit took place three years ago, when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was ripe with promise and there were hopes for a similar Israeli-Syrian rapprochement.

Since then, however, the Israeli-Syrian relationship has soured.

Moshe Katzav, the minister in charge of Arab affairs, recently gave the go-ahead for the trip to Syria after Israeli Druze poet Samih al-Kassem arranged, with the help of a Syrian Druze, an invitation from Assad.

Katzav and other Israeli officials had apparently believed that the visit might revive Israeli-Syrian dialogue at a time when the situation looks hopeless.

He approved the trip even though no Israeli Jews participated and even though all Israelis are legally banned from visiting countries that are at war with Israel.

Katzav may be regretting his decision.

When the delegation arrived in Damascus, the Syrian media gave extensive coverage to the visit, but did not make clear the fact that this was an Israeli delegation including five Arab Knesset members and several journalists whose work appears in the Israeli media.

The Syrian media referred to the delegates as representatives of the "1948 Arabs" — a term used to describe those Arabs who had not fled Israel during the 1948 War of Independence and subsequently became Israeli citizens.

Members of the delegation were reported as saying after meeting with Assad that he called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "strange," vacillating man, while praising the Rabin and Peres governments for progress made in peace talks when they were in power.

None of this came as a surprise to Israeli officials. But they were caught off guard when the delegation began bending over backwards to please their Syrian hosts.

The delegates played down their Israeli identity. Knesset members introduced themselves as members of parliament, without even mentioning which parliament.

Moderates like Ibrahim Nimer Hussein, the mayor of Shfaram and the chairman of the umbrella organization of Arab municipalities in Israel, declared that they fully sided with Syria's "peace strategy" — which calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in return for peace — and warned of the "dangerous" Netanyahu government.

Kassem, a poet and the editor of an Arab weekly newspaper from Nazareth, said after a visit to a military cemetery that "a nation which had made so much sacrifice would overcome all its enemies."

He was not referring to Israel.

Kassem was received like a hero Sunday, when he visited the "Martyrs' Cemetery" at the Palestinian Al-Yarmuk refugee camp outside Damascus.

At the burial place of Palestinians killed in battles against Israel, Kassem kissed the grave of Khalil Ibrahim al-Wazir.

Also known as Abu Jihad — "Father of the Struggle" — Wazir was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's second-in-command and likely heir apparent before he was killed in a 1988 Israeli commando raid in Tunis.

One member of the delegation, Knesset Member Abdel Wahab Darawshe of the United Arab List, raised Israeli hackles when he spoke before 20,000 Palestinians at the refugee camp.

"I swear to you in Allah's name that you will return to Palestine," he told the cheering audience. "If not you, then your children and grandchildren."

Nearly 350,000 Palestinians live in Syria.

Granting the right of return to Palestinians who fled in the War of Independence is politically anathema to almost all Israeli officials.

Labor Knesset member Saleh Tareef, an Israeli Druze retired army captain, was the sole member of the delegation who did not visit the refugee camp.

In a telephone interview from Damascus, Tareef distanced himself from Darawshe's comments, calling them misleading.

The delegation also presented Assad with a message from Labor Party head Ehud Barak. The Likud Party criticized the opposition for sending a message via a delegation whose members made extremist remarks.

Israeli officials of all political stripes were critical of the delegation's actions.

Even arch-dove Yossi Sarid, Knesset member from the Meretz Party, said the delegation had caused him "frustration and anger."

Sarid said he was particularly disturbed by the fact that the delegates did not identify themselves as Israelis, "as if they were coming from an unidentified place."

Sarid also lashed out at Darawshe.

"There is no serious person who believes that the Palestinians have the right to return to their places of before 1948," Sarid said.

The reaction among conservative Israeli politicians was even stronger.

Likud Knesset Member Reuven Rivlin said he'd propose lifting Darawshe's parliamentary immunity so charges could be brought.

By the time the delegates return to Israel next week, they are likely to face a very cold reception indeed.