Nancy Pelosi speaks to the press in Damascus

JERUSALEM (WOMENSENEWS)–Many female political leaders and peace activists in various parts of the Middle East expressed support for last week’s visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Syria.

“We are fed up with this division of the world into two camps–the evil and the good–which proved right from the beginning was very silly and very naive,” said Toujan Faisal, a former member of Jordan’s parliament. Such slogans, she says, are used to justify the bombing of men, women and children and Bush’s policy has created massive destruction and death in the Middle East.

Pelosi “came and decided to break this big farce of evil and good, and paid a visit to the area where real people live,” said Faisal. “I’m very optimistic. I’m very glad. She gave a very positive view of elected women in politics.”

She added that “the gates of hell” have opened in Iraq with the country’s current violence and extremism now being exported abroad.

Democracy can be achieved, she said, only through truly free and fair political elections and the halting of government corruption, particularly in Arab states considered moderate such as Jordan and Egypt.

Israeli Parliament Member Zahava Gal-On of the leftist Meretz-Yachad party also praised Pelosi.

“I understand that she got a promise from President Assad to intervene with the kidnapped Israeli soldiers,” she said, referring to the seizure last July of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants from Lebanon, which sparked the 34-day 2006 Lebanon War. Another Israeli soldier was abducted by Palestinian militants in June.

Syrian to Address Israeli Parliament

Gal-On has invited Syrian American businessman Abe Suleiman–who along with former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry Dr. Alon Liel engaged in secret, informal negotiations that were made public last winter–to speak about a potential Israeli-Syrian peace plan in front of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on April 12. It is the first time that a Syrian representative has been invited to speak to the parliament, she said.

“I think it’s very important for Israelis that Assad now wants to talk with Israel,” Gal-On said, adding that Pelosi’s visit “put the whole dialogue with Syria back on the agenda.”

Following a recommendation made last year by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to engage Syria directly in talks about the Iraq war, Pelosi led a delegation of five Democrats and a Republican on a Middle East fact-finding tour last week to discuss security issues in the region with government representatives. The delegation left the Middle East on April 7.

Syria supports the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah with financial and political aid, training and weapons and has provided training, weapons and a safe haven to Palestinian hard-liners, such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to U.S. government officials and the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, based in New York. Washington also accuses Syria of allowing militants who support the Iraqi insurgency to enter Iraq easily, creating a facilitation hub for terrorist groups operating in the country, and of interfering negatively in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon.

“I think isolation pushes Syria into only a one-option policy, that is to affiliate with Iran and Iraq,” said Israeli Education Minister Yuli Tamir of the Labor Party, who called the California Democrat’s visit to Syria–a country technically at war with Israel–a very important and courageous move.

‘We Want Syria on Our Side’

“If no one offers them a hand to become part of the American-European alliance, they have no other choice,” said Tamir, one of the founders of Peace Now, an Israeli-based nongovernmental organization that favors swapping land for peace. “We don’t want Syria to be with the Iranian pole. We want them to be on our side.”

Tamir hopes the United States will pressure Syria to move into a more intensive dialogue with the Western world, including with Israel. “If there will be some dialogue between Israel and Syria, and Syria has a very strong influence with Lebanon–we have a peace agreement with Egypt and Jordan–this creates an entirely different environment for Israel to act in,” she said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Syria must stop supporting terror in the Middle East, cease its sponsorship of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and relinquish ties it is building with Iran in order to conduct serious and genuine peace negotiations. Since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Israel has controlled and later annexed the strategic Golan Heights, which the United Nations considers as Israeli-occupied territory and expects Israel to withdraw from under a peace agreement with Syria.

Some Israeli lawmakers, however, consider Pelosi’s visit ill-advised. “We have coalitions; moderate Middle Eastern states and radicals. Why did she begin with the radicals?” asked Marina Solodkin, a member of parliament in the ruling Kadima party.

The situation in the Middle East is very volatile and politicians should have a very good understanding of the region before visiting, she said.

“We are facing a very important world threat, which is Iran, al-Qaida, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Autonomy . . .” she said. “I do think she has tasks inside the U.S. that she can begin that she knows better.”

Opposing Bush

The third highest-ranking elected official in the United States, Pelosi has gone head to head with President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq, particularly on a proposed increase of U.S. troops and a congressional push for withdrawal in 2008.

Bush strongly opposed Pelosi’s visit, saying it could lead Syria to believe it is part of the international community’s mainstream when it is actually “a state sponsor of terror.” She also visited Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

“It seems that there is a shift in American policy towards more engagement and inclusion rather than exclusion and punitive measures,” Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi told Women’s eNews regarding Pelosi’s visit to Syria. “Certainly nothing can be done in the region if you boycott major players or key players, be it Syria, Hamas or Iran.”

If the United States withdraws from Iraq as some Democrats are insisting, Hanan Kheirbek, an internal auditor at a petroleum company in Damascus, said the United States must improve relations with Iraq’s neighbors, especially Syria, which plays a significant role regarding security inside and outside Iraq. She thinks Bush has been mistaken in isolating Syria since many Arab countries and the European community are resuming ties with its government.

“I expect to see more of peace process supporters and peace activists, even inside Israel, in the near future,” Kheirbek said in an e-mail interview, adding that both Pelosi’s visit and the recent Arab Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, seem to be having a positive influence on the prospects of peace.

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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