I can’t talk to you — it’s against the law!
How the Syrian ambassador responded to a question from an Israeli citizen
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