Syria Not Ready To Accept Jewish State, Congressmen Say

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - A visiting U.S. congressional delegation decided against meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat Thursday because he has not done enough to fight against terrorism, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said here Thursday.

The congressmen, who were on a one-week tour in the region, which included stops in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Israel, also said that while Syria wanted to regain land it lost to Israel in 1967, it was not willing to accept the presence of a Jewish state in the region.

According to Gephardt, the mission, which included Congressmen Ray Lahood (R-Ill.), Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.), Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) and Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), came to the region to deal with two issues: the fight against terrorism and to encourage the Middle East peace process which is currently in shambles.

"We also wanted to deliver a united message to the people of this region that we want to fight against terrorism here and we want their help," Gephardt told reporters in Jerusalem before the delegation departed for the U.S.

"Either you're with us in the fight against terrorism or you're not with us and we have to draw our conclusions from that," he added.

While the various regional leaders expressed their support for the war on terrorism they wanted to differentiate between terrorist groups and national liberation movements, which they support, but the U.S. opposes such a view, Waxman said.

"Terrorism even in the guise of national liberation is not something that the United States is going to accept and we are not going to support those governments that support such acts," he said.

Both Syria and Lebanon consider the Lebanese-based Hizballah to be a legitimate freedom fighting organization, but the U.S. has listed it among those it considers to be terrorist groups.

In Syria, Gephardt said the congressmen spoke about the existence of terrorist organizations and training camps in the country and asked for Syrian cooperation. Damascus has for years hosted the headquarters of a number of Palestinian terror groups, which oppose a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"There has to be a reconciliation in this part of the world," he said. "There has to be a recognition that Israel has a right to exist in peace and stability."

Nevertheless, Waxman added that he believed that while Syrian President Bashar Assad says he is willing to exchange land for peace, his position is no different than his father's was.

"It has to be all of the land returned to the Syrians, and of course it is not clear what kind of peace Israel will get," Waxman said.

Israel offered Syria almost all of the strategic plateau known as the Golan Heights in talks two years ago, except the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main freshwater source. But talks broke down between the sides over the issue of the shoreline.

The late President Hafez Assad was also unwilling to commit himself to the exchange of diplomats, economic ties and other arrangements, which would indicate a friendly relationship between the two countries.

"I pressed President [Bashar] Assad on the issue of whether he can reconcile with a Jewish State of Israel ... and he would not say he could recognize a Jewish country," Waxman said.

Not Satisfied With Arafat

Gephardt also had some tough words for Arafat and said that the delegation had passed on a meeting with the Palestinian leader because they were not "satisfied" that he was doing all he could to stop terror.

"There has to be more action. The words are in place. The actions are what are missing at this point," he said.

The American lawmakers did meet with other Palestinian leaders.

"We wanted to see some of the other people who are emerging in the region that maybe have the potential to bring about peace," Lahood explained.

Gephardt said that he agreed with the assessment of Israel's Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, whom the lawmakers met on Wednesday, that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He refrained from criticizing Israel on the issue of settlements in disputed territories and Israel's decision to tighten its closure on Thursday of several Palestinian cities in response to a heightened warning of terror attacks. But he said that everyone in the region and the U.S. had to exert all their efforts to bring about a lasting peace deal.

"Failure is not an option here," he said. "We have encouraged the Israeli government and its leaders, we've encouraged the leaders of every country we've been in and we will go back and encourage our colleagues in the administration and in the Congress to do more, to do better, to fight harder, to be more urgent, to show more will power to get this done."