I can’t talk to you — it’s against the law!

How the Syr­ian am­bas­sador re­sponded to a ques­tion from an Is­raeli ci­ti­zen

The Jewish Chronicle - - News - BY BERNARD JOSEPHS

AS A jour­nal­ist you know you are not go­ing to get any­where when an am­bas­sador, shep­herded by dark-suited aides, re­fuses to say any­thing — ex­cept that he won’t speak to you.

What seemed to worry Syr­ian Am­bas­sador to Bri­tain Dr Sami Khiyami was not that I might mis­quote him, but that I might have Is­raeli blood cours­ing through my veins.

Whether he was anx­ious to fol-low or­ders from Da­m­as­cus is a moot point. But he made it clear that po­lite, or any sort of con­ver­sa­tion, with even the most or­di­nary of Is­raeli cit­i­zens, was for His Ex­cel­lency, sim­ply a step too far.

Dur­ing a Lon­don lec­ture for the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of Strate­gic Stud­ies he had seemed al­most emol­lient as he in­sisted he ac­cepted Is­rael as a fact of life, and that as far as he was con­cerned, young Is­raelis who had played no part in the found­ing of the State were wel­come to live there. Whether that was a sig­nal of some thaw­ing in the Syr­ian at­ti­tude to­wards Is­rael, I will never know. I hope so.

Ad­dress­ing diplo­mats and aca­demics, the am­bas­sador spoke en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about how his coun­try would be the cor­ner stone of Mid­dle-East re­gen­er­a­tion, in co­op­er­a­tion with Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

Dr Khiyami, the epit­ome of a deep-think­ing, mild-man­nered en­voy, hap­pily an­swered ques­tions — al­beit off the record.

Then I asked if he saw for Is­rael, with its tech­no­log­i­cal edge and power-house econ­omy, a role in fos­ter­ing Mid­dle East­ern pros­per­ity.

I pref­aced my ques­tion by stat­ing not only that I rep­re­sented the JC but also that I held dual Is­raeli-Bri­tish na­tion­al­ity. This led to an ex­change of stage whis­pers be­tween the diplo­mat and the chair­man.

The am­bas­sador’s re­sponse can best be de­scribed as stony-faced and si­lent. At the end of the meet­ing, I ap­proached him and re­peated my ques­tion. “It is against the law to talk to Is­raelis,” he said. “What law?” I asked. “Syr­ian law,” he an­swered. “But we’re in Bri­tain,” I said. As a crowd lis­tened in, I asked him when he thought a con­ver­sa­tion could take place without le­gal prob­lems. “When the Golan is lib­er­ated,” he snapped.

Try­ing to lighten the mood I pointed out that al­though I was sim­ply a jour­nal­ist with no in­flu­ence on Is­raeli pol­icy-mak­ers, “I will do my best.”

Not a flicker of a smile crossed his face as he was ush­ered away. For Syr­ian of­fi­cials, it seems that talk­ing to Is­raelis — even those with dual na­tion­al­ity — is a def­i­nite no-no.

The am­bas­sador had cer­tainly toed the line on Is­rael dur­ing his lec­ture, which the IISS said would be a dis­cus­sion about the prospects of a re­gional un­der­stand­ing be­tween Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

His brief but glow­ing pic­ture of a Mid­dle East un­der Syr­ian lead­er­ship was fol­lowed by the usual rhetoric lam­bast­ing Is­rael as the root of all evil.

Is­rael had en­gaged in the “dis­tor­tion” of West­ern val­ues, he said. Prime Min­is­ter Ne­tanyahu had used the “lobby” to crip­ple Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. Is­rael had car­ried out eth­nic cleans­ing and col­lec­tive pu­n­ish­ment, not only against the Pales­tini­ans but against its own Arab mi­nor­ity.

He dis­missed the threat of a nu­clear Iran as Is­rael’s at­tempt to di­vert at­ten­tion from the drive for “il­le­gal” set­tle­ments.

There were signs of dis­com­fort in the au­di­ence as he went on — and on — about Is­rael, but there was no ef­fort by the chair­man, Dr Mamoun Fandy, IISS se­nior fel­low for Gulf se­cu­rity, to re­turn to the sub­ject in hand. Dur­ing the re­gret­tably off-the-record Q&A that fol­lowed, it was in fact a Pales­tinian diplo­mat who posed the most dif­fi­cult ques­tion.

Why, he asked, if Syria wanted to lead the Mid­dle East to a new age of pros­per­ity, did it main­tain such a close re­la­tion­ship with the likes of Ha­mas and Hizbol­lah?

From Dr Khiyami’s off-the-record re­ply, on that front at least, there is noth­ing for the mil­i­tants in Da­m­as­cus to worry about.

Ques­tions: Re­porter Bernard Josephs

No an­swers: Am­bas­sador Khiyami

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.