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SYRIA - Pax Americana Is Changing - Part 17F - The Israel Factor & Implications.

The funeral of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican on April 8 provided a rare opportunity for dramatic, if brief, moments of Middle Eastern diplomacy as Israeli President Moshe Katsav shook hands with Syria's Bashar Al-Assad and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. "The Syrian president sat in the chair behind me", Katsav, with a ceremonial post, told the Maariv newspaper. "We exchanged smiles and shook hands". The Iran-born Israeli leader also said he had exchanged a few words with Khatami.

Israeli officials are always eager to mingle with Arabs at international gatherings, if only to show domestic public opinion that their country is not as isolated in the region as it appears. Syrian officials try hard to avoid public contact with Israelis and are sharply critical of the public diplomacy that other Arab governments engage in.

Assad's April 8 handshake with Katsav, however, came at a time when Syria faced unprecedented international isolation over its role in Lebanon. International pressure on Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon - a process which should be completed by end-April - intensified after the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who had close relations with Europe and the US. The killing was blamed by Hariri allies on Syria - a charge it denies.

In recent months Syria has shown keen interest in renewing peace talks with Israel over the return of the occupied Golan Heights. The last round of talks between the two countries collapsed in March 2000. Since then, Israel has demanded that Damascus stop all support for Lebanon's Hizbollah, the Iran-sponsored Shiite militant organisation which is still occasionally mounting anti-Israel attacks at Sheb'a Farms to the south of Lebanon, and radical Palestinian groups before negotiations could resume.

Assad was on April 8 joined at the Vatican funeral by many of Syria's equally isolated Lebanese allies. Lebanese commentators have charged that the Syria-backed Beirut authorities sent a large official delegation - some claimed it was even larger than that of the Pope's native Poland - to delay preparations for legislative elections.

The vote, by end-May, is expected widely to bring to power the anti-Syria opposition in Lebanon. President Emile Lahoud, a puppet of Damascus, on April 15 designated Najib Miqati for the post of PM after Omar Karami opted out as he failed to form a government acceptable to the opposition. Miqati formed an acceptable government a few days later.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Date:Apr 25, 2005
Previous Article:SYRIA - The Siege Mentality.
Next Article:SYRIA - Assad Overtures Turned Down.

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