Syrian ambassador charts route to peace for Israel in Middle East

New London - Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha told a crowd of about 100 at Connecticut College Thursday that "there should be a historic exchange of land for peace" in the Middle East.

Moustapha, speaking to members of the Southeast Connecticut Committee on Foreign Relations at the college's Blaustein Hall, endorsed the so-called Pan-Arab Peace Initiative. The proposal, adopted at an Arab summit in 2002, calls for Israel to adhere to internationally recognized borders - essentially giving back territories it acquired in a series of wars last century - in return for Arabs' recognition of the Jewish state as well as normalization of relations.

"If they want to be accepted by their neighbors, they need to stop their policy of occupation and expanding settlements," Moustapha said of the Israelis. "If they want peace ... this is the only way to move forward. In my heart, I believe this is inevitable. If this is inevitable ... why not do it today instead of next year?"

Moustapha, responding to a question, noted the Israelis greeted Vice President Joe Biden's visit this week with an announcement that they had expanded more settlements into occupied Arab territories.

"When will the Israelis realize this is insane and counter to their own national interests?" he said.

Moustapha questioned Israel's commitment to the so-called two-state solution and wondered if it would continue a policy that he said essentially has turned it into an "apartheid state."

Moustapha blamed the United States for allowing Israel to continue the policy unchecked. While acknowledging that the Obama administration has been much more amenable to working with the Syrians than the Bush administration, he said he still believes America can do more to push peace in the Middle East.

The United States "should have the moral courage to tell a friend that what you are doing is absolutely wrong," he said.

Still, under President Obama, Moustapha said Syria feels like it's at the table as "part of the solution" to peace in the Middle East, rather than being depicted as part of the problem, as under President Bush.

Moustapha said Bush's "flagrant hostility" toward Syria grew to a boiling point after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which led to 1.2 million Iraqi refugees flooding his country and 4.2 million stateless people taking up residence throughout the Middle East - what he called the biggest exodus in the history of the region.

Moustapha said he had no direct contact with high-level members of the U.S. government for four or five years after the conflict started, despite the fact that Syria, after 9/11, invited Americans to share their intelligence on the terrorist organization al-Qaida. Syrian intelligence helped snuff out al-Qaida attacks against Americans in both Canada and Bahrain, he said.

Moustapha pointed out that Syria had also joined the United States in the 1990s Gulf War after Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait. Yet when Syria tried to dissuade the United States from going to war with Iraq a second time in 2003, Moustapha said the neoconservatives in Washington "mocked us in our face."

"That was the breaking point between us and the Bush administration," he said. "All that cooperation came to a standstill when the United States decided to invade Iraq."

Now, though, Moustapha sees some signs of progress in Washington's stance toward Syria. Just a few weeks ago, the United States sent its special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad, in talks that Moustapha found encouraging.

Moustapha was not as hopeful about the future of what he called the "failed state" of Iraq. And, though he views democracy as historically inevitable, Moustapha said "democracy by brute force," as imposed by the United States in Iraq, created a reaction that may have hindered democratic progress throughout the Arab world.

"It needs to happen from within; it can't happen from without," he said.

But Moustapha said he doesn't want to point fingers. Rather than reliving the turbulent history of the Middle East and quibbling over who wronged whom, he suggested that Arabs, Israelis and Americans put the past behind them.

"The question is do you want to live in peace or do you not want to live in peace?"

l.howard@theday.com

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