Baker’s ME Mission Reopens Syrian-Israeli Peace Track

US President George W. Bush took advantage of his end-of-year vacation to launch a surprise move in the Middle East. He added the region to the remit of his special envoy on Iraqi debt relief, the former secretary of state James Baker, after commending him on progress made so far, especially in persuading China and Japan to ease up on their share of Iraq’s $120bn debt. Baker will decide when the time is right for his trip.
debkafile‘s exclusive sources in Washington lay bare the most important layer of Baker’s new mission. While working to persuade Syrian president Bashar Assad to part with the $3bn of Saddam Hussein’s money he is hanging onto in secret – admitting only to holding one-sixth of that amount – the former US secretary of state will also bend his diplomatic energies to the Syrian-Israel dispute and the close ties the Assad regime maintains with the Lebanese Hizballah and hard-line Palestinian terrorist groups.
Some of the groundwork is already in place. Our sources disclose that Baker has been receiving reports from a team holding quiet talks in Damascus for some weeks on the possibility of resuming talks with Israel.
The sudden invitation extended by Syrian president Bashar Assad to Likud Knesset Member Majali Wahabi is the first open step in this direction and therefore of great importance. If Wahabi returns to Jerusalem with the replies prime minister Ariel Sharon has been expecting since Baker’s representatives said they are ready, the process can move out into the open and direct Israel-Syrian negotiations can begin.
British prime minister Tony Blair’s meeting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at Sharm el-Sheikh Friday, January 2, was meant to speed momentum on this track, as was the long conversation Mubarak’s political adviser Osama al-Baz held with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah the day before. Al-Baz came to persuade Arafat not to torpedo any prospective Syrian-Israeli talks by mounting major terrorist attacks and to do what he could to propel Hamas and Jihad Islami into accepting a ceasefire.
The Egyptian diplomat went to Ramallah after learning that Baker’s team in Damascus had finally convinced Assad to apply similar pressure on the Syrian-based leaderships of the two Islamist groups for a halt in their terrorist operations against Israel.
Arafat assented to his Egyptian visitor’s request, although he knows that the new initiative is aimed at making naught of his success in diminishing prime minister Ahmed Qureia and hijacking the Palestinian Authority’s treasury. Arafat may have given his word, but this does not mean he will keep it. In the past three years, he has systematically reneged on one pledge after another – including some given personally to American presidents.

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