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Damascus Gate

Who told honcho Malcolm Hoenlein to go to Syria?

Allison Hoffman
January 04, 2011

Malcolm Hoenlein, a man some refer to not entirely jokingly as “King of the Jews,” quietly visited Damascus over the holidays, Israel’s Channel 10 reported yesterday, to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—the man who, not incidentally, may hold the key to striking an Israeli-Arab peace. (Though Tablet Magazine Mideast columnist Lee Smith is skeptical of U.S.-Syrian outreach.)

It’s no secret that the administration is making overtures to the Syrians—last week, President Obama named the first U.S. ambassador to the country since 2005—and, over the weekend, a report surfaced in the Kuwaiti press that the Syrians have told Obama adviser Dennis Ross (who is heading to the region now) that they’re ready to play footsie back, in the form of opening dialogue with the Israelis. (The story was subsequently refuted by Syria’s state-run news agency.) What’s less clear is how Prime Minister Netanyahu feels about all this. Which is why the big news of the Channel 10 story was the claim that Hoenlein, whom I profiled last May, went to Damascus to courier a message to Assad from Bibi.

Hoenlein has vociferously denied this aspect of the report. “I was invited in a personal capacity and was not sent by Netanyahu,” he wrote me yesterday. He told Politico’s Laura Rozen that he went to discuss “humanitarian issues” (perhaps Gilad Schalit, Rozen mused on Twitter), but refused to elaborate, on the grounds that his credibility depends on his ability to keep his mouth shut about private conversations.

Fair enough. But it is undeniably true that Hoenlein, whose main responsibility as the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is to interface with the White House on behalf of a coalition of groups, also maintains an active sideline in informal diplomacy with everyone from the Armenians to the Ukrainians. (Alan Solow, currently chairman of the Presidents’ Conference, declined to comment on Hoenlein’s excursion, which piggybacked on an official trip to Israel for a forum with Netanyahu on delegitimization.)

And it is also the case that Hoenlein is closely allied not just with Netanyahu but with American tycoon Ronald Lauder—who, as Ross detailed in his 2005 book The Missing Peace, acted as a go-between for Netanyahu and Assad’s father in 1998. That effort came to nothing—in part because, as Ross delicately put it, Lauder suffered from an excess of sincere optimism and was, as a result, “not precise” about the specifics of what the Syrians were prepared to put on the table. “But it was a moment when Netanyahu was relying on unofficial channels to sound out what was possible,” William Quandt, a professor of international relations at the University of Virginia who is working on a study of American efforts to promote Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations in the 1990s, told me yesterday. “I wouldn’t rule that out.”

But another person who has been involved in outreach efforts with Damascus offered another possibility: That, this time, it’s Assad who, not wanting to rock his own political boat by opening direct lines to Jerusalem, decided to enlist Hoenlein as a way of reaching out to Netanyahu; or perhaps, a cynic might add, to be seen as reaching out to Netanyahu, knowing that Washington is paying very close attention.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.