Senior US Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein secretly visited Damascus about 10 days ago and met with Syrian President Bashar Assad
and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported Tuesday.
Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was not dispatched on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,
and said he visited Damascus to pursue a humanitarian agenda.
However, he did update the Israeli premier on the meetings.
Hoenlein was invited to Damascus by Assad with the mediation of a Jewish Syrian-American businessman. It was his second visit to the Syrian capital.
During the meeting with Assad, Hoenlein requested information on three IDF soldiers who went missing in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub during the first Lebanon war and asked that Syria allow the bones of executed Israeli spy Eli Cohen to be brought to Israel for burial.
During the meeting, Assad gave his approval for the restoration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries in Syria, Yedioth Ahronoth reported.
On Monday Hoenlein said he and Assad did not discuss the advancement of Israel-Syria negotiations, stressing that the visit was aimed at promoting humanitarian issues.
Speaking to Ynet, Joey Allaham, the 35-year-old businessman who organized the meeting confirmed that it focused on the heritage of Syria's Jews and the restoration of 18 Jewish cemeteries and synagogues.
He said that during a tour of Damascus' old city Hoenlein "was surprised to see Torah books from hundreds of years ago gather dust.
The businessman said Assad has a lot of respect for the Jewish religion.
"Syria is not Egypt or Jordan. The Syrians have a different mentality. They want to do business and enjoy life. They are not concerned with politics. They did not ask for anything in return, they just wanted the Jews to see that the Syrian government respects the Jewish religion," Allaham said.
Israeli officials estimated that Syria invited Hoenlein as part of its efforts to bolster ties with the Obama Administration. "The Syrians know that in order to reach Obama they need the Jews, so they invited a kippah-wearing Jewish American leader," one of the officials said.
The US recently appointed
the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005.
A Kuwaiti newspaper reported over the weekend that talks between Israel and Syria would resume soon, but Jerusalem denied the report.
Yitzhak Benhorin contributed to the report