In a rare interview with Ynet from his home in a Washington suburb, Soliman, one of the chief participants in the unofficial contacts held recently between Israel and Syria, says that talks were held with the knowledge and support of the administrations in both Jerusalem and Damascus.
According to Soliman, who launched his peace initiative some 16 years ago, says that all Israel’s prime ministers since Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 were aware of his efforts. “But I always operated behind the scenes and did not speak to the media. Until now. This is the first interview I am giving,” he told Ynet.
Soliman was scheduled to address the Israeli public for the first time next week, in a speech at the Herzliya conference, as the special guest of Dr. Uzi Arad, chief diplomatic consultant to the prime minister during Benjamin Netanyahu’s term. However, when his efforts were publicized, Soliman, who believes strongly that media exposure sabotages diplomatic negotiations, decided to cancel his visit.
He was already on his way to Israel, and during a stopover in Switzerland, “I got all this information about the media in Israel and what (former Foreign Ministry director general) Alon Liel said, and it was as surprise for me because our work is supposed to be confidential,” he said, his anger over the issue apparent.
Over two years, Soliman met in Europe with Liel and two senior European officials, whose names he refused to disclose, and drew up an Israeli-Syrian “deed of understandings”. After the document’s existence was leaked to the press this week, the leadership in both Israel and Syrian officially denied their involvement.
“Personally I don’t believe any open negotiations between Israel and Syria will lead anywhere,” he said. “They tried it for 10 years with (the US’s former special envoy to the Middle East) Dennis Ross.
Dennis Ross is a great guy – he should be given a Nobel Prize for his patience with the Israelis and the Syrians. But the media will not allow any progress, and everyone is negotiating according to what the media says.”
Do you speak for the Syrians?
“I want to make it clear to you now I do not speak for Syria, I do not represent Syria in any way shape or form. I am Syrian American, I’d like to have good relations between Syria and America. The key to good relations is peace between Syria and Israel. This is the reason I’m devoting all my efforts, all my resources to promote peace between Syria and Israel.
“I have many friends in Israel, I have many friends in Syria, I have many friends in America, but I work quietly and I believe the only way to make peace between Syria and Israel is to quietly solve all the problems, and take the results and give it to the Israelis, give it to the Syrians, give it to the Americans to adopt it publicly. But the problems should be solved privately. The media should not be involved at all. This is the reason why I was very upset when I heard that our work became public,” Soliman explains.
Although he repeatedly notes he is working independently and does not represent the Syrian government, Soliman does not hide his personal relations with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. According to Soliman, Damascus knew of the contacts and extended their blessings – even though they will not admit so publicly.
What is the nature of your ties with the Syrian government?
“Walid (Moallem) is a very good friend of mine since (he served as Syrian Ambassador in) Washington. He negotiated with the Israelis. He’s a great friend of mine and a great politician. I see him and talk to him when I go to Damsacus, but my work is my work.
Then what is the significance of unauthorized private talks?
“The results (of our contacts) went to (former Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon, the same way they went to the Syrians, but Sharon gave it his blessings, to my understanding. But the thing is, Syria wanted to make peace with Israel, Syria wanted to build relations with the United States; President Assad said time and again that he wanted to have good relations with the United States. He extended his hand in friendship and peace to Israel and the US, and they turned him down,” Soliman says.
'America to blame'
According to Soliman, it is the Americans who are blocking Israel from responding to the Syrian peace initiative: “The US is not letting Israel make peace with Syria. The Israeli side is obstructing the peace. Syria wanted peace: It is hard to improve the economy, hard to fight corruption, fight to bring your country to the 21st century when you’re in a state of war. And a big chunk of Syrian territory is being occupied by Israel,” he says.
“I think Israel and the US are making big mistakes. President Assad is very serious about making peace with Israel,” he asserts.
According to Soliman, the negotiators met at least eight times in Europe and drafted a document summing both Israeli and Syrian objectives. He says he is certain the peace draft was given to Sharon, as well as to the Syrian administration.
“The Israelis saw it - the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the prime minister. They knew everything, I gave the information to my friends in Syria. I spoke with Moallem, he knew I was meeting with the Israelis. They all liked it, but all of a sudden now they deny it.”
Soliman says he was the one who initiated the creative solution of establishing a “peace park” in the Golan Heights territory under Syrian sovereignty, but open to all.
Prior to his devotion to Israeli-Syrian peace efforts, Soliman worked as an electrical engineering professor at Howard University. He also taught at the University of Pittsburgh, then turned to business, working chiefly in vocational education. “I am a firm believer in education. In 1990 I resigned all my work and started work on the peace process.”
So what is the next step?
The 70-year-old Soliman says he was associated with former Syrian president Hafez Assad. “I think the chance for peace now is great. I really believe Syria is serious and is willing to go the extra mile for peace. Everything is on the table now. Many things were not on the table in the 90s.
“The June 4 (1967) border and the water situation are sacred and non-negotiable. Syria must have the sovereignty over the Golan heights. Everything else can be talked about. We (drew up) the paper for two years, we met eight times and had a beautiful solution to the sovereignty and the water. Syria and Israel have a problem, and we will work together to find a solution to the problem that will satisfy both.”
“The elements for peace are in place: Israel knows what Syria wants, Syria knows what Israel wants. We put it in this paper. The only thing the peace needs now is a presidential decision – a decision from Bashar and a decision from (Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert. But Olmert cannot make a decision. Bashar can. With a decision from the leadership within 6 months we can have peace,” Suleiman avers, “and each side can say ‘we got everything we want.’”
'Assad capable of making peace'
Suleiman asserted that despite claims otherwise, Assad enjoys the Syrian people’s support and is capable of enforcing a peace, and offering worthy benefits to having a state of peace. Olmert however, Suleiman believes, lacks the power to install peace.
“Basher is very strong and in control. People say he’s not but he is and the people are behind him. He is strong and he can make peace, but I don’t believe Olmert can,” he says.
Soliman claims that Syria has proved itself in the past, when it cooperated with the United States after the events of 9/11, but it was the Americans who put a damper on the developing alliance: “Syria helped the United States tremendously. Syria worked with the Americans side by side, gave them information, saved American lives.
“Things were going well, then all of a sudden America started pressuring (Syria) more and more and wanted more and more, and asked (Syria to quill) Hamas and Hizbullah. They (the US) always demand things, they never ask. You do not demand things from Syria. You sit down with them, negotiate with them, compromise and they will help the way they did after 9/11.
“The (US) forced Syria to leave Lebanon, and now there’s no one there to control Hizbullah. So Hizbullah became the master in Lebanon. And then there was the war last summer. If Syria was in Lebanon, Hizbullah would not have been able to wage war,” Soliman asserts.
Soliman revealed that 3 months ago Israel was offered “certain help on a matter that is most important to the Israeli people”, but ultimately refused the gesture. He was unwilling to reveal further information on the issue.
“This was a critical thing, a confidence building measure,” prepared between himself, and European and Syrian officials.
“The Israel people would have loved it. They would have celebrated it. Olmert’s deputy said yes, then a week later he sent an email that said, ‘No, we’ve changed our minds.’”
Soliman blames the Americans for Israel’s change of heart: “For some reason beyond my understanding the Americans don’t want peace between Syria and Israel.”
“Syria is trying and I’m trying, but damn it, there’s a limit to how much we can give,” he says.
'No religious ties to Golan Heights'
Soliman reveals that he visited Israel a year and a half ago. “I went to Israel and I spent few days there, I was taken to the Golan Heights. I met with many people from the Foreign Ministry. I went to Katzrin abd I talked to people there – they didn’t know I was Syrian. And you know what? I got the impression that people there are not like people (Israelis) in the West Bank and Gaza. The people there are not tied to the land. If they were given the right price they’d be willing to sell their land. There’s no religious tie to the Golan Heights.
“For relocating 15,000 people from the Golan heights, Israel will get peace with Syria, peace with Lebanon, Hizbullah will not bother Israel. There will be good relations between the countries, Syria and Israel will work together to solve the Palestinian problem.
Although the diplomatic efforts were exposed in the media, Soliman stills believes contacts can be made between Israeli and Syrian officials, with European mediation – as long as this time the media is kept out.
“The Europeans and I are willing to organize things. But no public meetings. You don’t start with Bashar and Olmert, you start with a lower rung. I recommend deputy foreign ministers, and build up to foreign
Soliman promises that if a peace agreement is signed Damascus will shut down Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices operating in its territory, and ultimately all Arab nations will normalize relations with Israel. Further, a peace agreement would ensure Hizbullah operative in the political plane only, and will reduce its sway over Iran and Lebanon.
“Believe me, there will be no solution to the Palestinian problem until there is a solution to the Syrian problem. The economic benefit for both – and for the entire region – will be tremendous,” he concludes.