Specter Suggests Oval Office Meeting Between Obama, Syria's Assad and Israelis

By Matt Cover | February 24, 2010 | 6:10 PM EST

In this May 5, 2009 file photo, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate Democrats gave party switcher Specter a plum Judiciary subcommittee chairmanship on Thursday, May 7, 2009, as a potential primary challenger to the veteran Pennsylvania lawmaker stepped forward. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, FILE)

(CNSNews.com) – At a Capitol Hill hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be invited to the White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama and the Israeli leadership. Specter also suggested that such a “nudge” might entice the Syrian dictator to return to peace negotiations with Israel.
Specter, speaking to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee, asked whether the Obama administration might consider a prestigious Oval Office summit for Assad who, in addition to being Syria’s president, is regional secretary of the Ba’ath Party (Arab Socialist Resurrection).
Specter said he had already raised the issue with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, who recently traveled to Syria.
“The question on my mind, and I him [Burns] to this yesterday, as to whether the stalemate might be broken between Syria and Israel on negotiations if the president were to invite them to the Oval Office,” said Specter to Clinton.
“Would you give consideration to that process?” said Specter.
The Pennsylvania Democrat, who switched from the Republican Party last year, went on to recount how well he had gotten to know the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as well as his father, Hafez al-Assad, a Syrian Air Force general who ruled the country from 1971 until his death in 2000, when his son inherited the presidency.
Specter indicated that the prestige of an Oval Office meeting might be enough to convince the Syrian dictator to return to negotiations.
“I have gotten to know the Assads, both the father [former President Hafez] and the current president, and I think the right nudge could push them to the table,” said Specter.
Clinton said she would “look at anything” that might restart Syrian-Israeli peace talks but downplayed Specter’s suggestion of an Oval Office meeting, saying it might not be acceptable or even “doable.”
“I will certainly look at anything that might break the stalemate,” Clinton said. “I’m not sure that would be acceptable or doable to all of the parties involved. But certainly our goal is to help facilitate a resumption of talks between Israel and Syria.”
According to the U.S. State Department, Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism.
In addition, the latest report on Syria’s human rights abuses, issued by the State Department in March 2008, says that the government controls the security forces there, and that since Assad was confirmed for another seven-year term in 2007, the “government’s respect for human rights worsened, and it continued to commit serious abuses.”
The report states that starting in 2005 the Syrian government “increasingly violated citizens’ privacy rights and increased already significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, amidst an atmosphere of government corruption and lack of transparency.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Clinton said the State Department would take any of Specter’s ideas “under consideration” because he has traveled to Syria more than any other lawmaker – 18 times.
“We’ll certainly take any idea you have under consideration because you have been – I don’t know how many times you’ve been to Syria by now – 18 [visits] – it’s more than anybody else that I personally know. We take what you say and that’s why Undersecretary Burns called to report to you, we take what you say very seriously and we’ll certainly consider it.”
Talks between the two longtime enemies ended in 2008 and never rose above the level of informal meetings. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that Israel was still open to negotiations with Syria, according to the Associated Press.
Syria has long been a bane to Israel and America, funding and arming the radical Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, harboring the senior leadership of the Palestinian terror group Hamas, and acting as a regional proxy for Iran.
Also, in 2005, Syrian intelligence agents murdered former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a move that prompted then-President George W. Bush to withdraw the U.S. ambassador, a post that President Obama has recently restored.
In 2007, Israel destroyed a secret, partially constructed Syrian nuclear reactor which, according to the New York Times, the Syrians had built with the help of North Korea.