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Seymour Hersh on “Syria Calling: The Obama Administration’s Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace”

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In the latest issue of The New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh looks at Syria’s emerging role in the politics of Middle East peace. He also reveals new details on the behind-the-scenes dealings of the Bush administration and the then-incoming Obama camp during the Israeli attack on Gaza. The article is called “Syria Calling: The Obama Administration’s Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. His piece in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine is called “Syria Calling: The Obama Administration’s Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace.”

Sy, you begin, “When the Israelis’ controversial twenty-two-day military campaign in Gaza ended, on January 18th, it also seemed to end the promising [peace] talks between Israel and Syria.” What were those talks?

SEYMOUR HERSH: There was a series of more or less secret talks. They initially were secret, but they became known. The Turkish government intervened. And Turkey and Syria have not always been good friends, but there’s a great relationship between the leadership of Turkey and President Bashar Assad of Syria now. And they began talks about — the Turks have also great relationships, very close relationships — or did, until Gaza — with the Israelis. So it was a natural sort of mix.

The Turks mediated or brokered a series of — I think there were four long meetings about getting the Golan Heights, which was an area, a large area, seized by the Israelis after the ’67 war and, contrary to international law, not returned to the Syrians. The Syrians have always wanted it back, as any country would. You know, it’s native soil. And so, the talks were very — what I was writing about, I started doing this last fall, because I was told how far along the talks were. They had resolved a lot of questions. There were always going to be complicated questions of water, because the Golan Heights is a mountainous region, and there’s a great deal of water that pours into the Jordan Valley and into Israel. But once the riparian rights — even those rights were discussed and worked out. And they were on a track to begin almost direct negotiations, when Gaza broke out. So the story I had worked on for months at The New Yorker was sort of scrapped, obviously, because of Gaza.

And then, to my surprise, a few weeks after the war, after both the Turkish president, Erdogan, and Bashar Assad both were incredibly harshly critical of Israel for the overzealous bombing, etc., etc., we all know about at Gaza and the collateral deaths — they were so critical. I had sent an email message to Assad, President Assad, who I’ve seen three or four times in the past six or so years. And to my surprise, he responded with an email, saying essentially, “Look, I want to go ahead with talks.” And he is still talking that way. And his goal is — it’s not just some sort of quixotic thing. The Israelis want to go ahead with talks, despite Gaza.

And the Syrian goal is simply, I think — as I write, the Syrian goal was to get President Obama, who is the great hope of everybody in the Middle East and, I think, everybody in the world — we’re all worried about Afghanistan, for sure, but nonetheless, the Syrians want Obama and the Americans to broker talks, and the idea being, if you can get this administration, our White House, into a possible settlement of the Golan Heights dispute, land for peace, we can get a regional peace process going.

And then the United States would have to — in Bashar Assad’s view, it would be not — very logical for the Americans to also accept the idea that Iran should participate. And we just heard in your news broadcast today Richard Holbrooke talking about the inevitability of using — having Iran involved, because for the United States, you have to look at the idea of having Syria, Turkey and Iran all together, all border countries playing an enormous role in making sure that the Iraqi — as we walk out of Iraq, and making sure that that happens safely — they have a lot to say about what’s going to happen inside Iraq. They can be moderating influences. And so, you see the potential for an enormous sort of a change in the paradigm.

AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, can you talk about Vice President Cheney’s comments about Obama to Israeli officials after he was elected but before he was inaugurated?

SEYMOUR HERSH: What I wrote about, in doing my reporting, I did discover that Cheney, of course, to no one’s surprise, if you certainly read what I wrote about Cheney and the White House’s involvement in the Israeli attack on Lebanon three years ago — Cheney was deeply involved with the Israelis in the planning for Gaza, resupplying them with weapons and also providing intelligence through our — the offices we have in Egypt, our intelligence offices there. So we were deeply involved in helping the Israelis do the attack on Gaza, with intelligence, etc., and weaponry.

And he was, not surprisingly, very hostile to the election of Obama. And he called him a lot of pejorative names, but one of them that we published that dealt with — I think he said, “He will never make it in the major leagues,” and that kind of language.

And more specifically, what I wrote about that actually is, I think, far more interesting is that Obama — and when he was in transition, his transition team let the Israelis know that — if you remember, the bombing of Gaza began in late December of ’08 and ended around the 18th of January, 18th. That wasn’t an accident. Obama told the Israelis, “I do not want bombing in Gaza or Israeli troops in Gaza at the time of my inauguration.” And that was — it’s not clear whether the Israelis were going to stay there. But the hunch is, they planned to go another week. They stopped short.

And as I write, they complained bitterly to Cheney, who communicated that distress to General Jones, who is the new head of the National Security — former Marine General Jim Jones, who’s head of now the National — as I said, national security adviser. And Jones was the national security adviser in waiting, and he worked out a deal, which was that the Israelis would stop short, as Obama wanted; in return, the Obama administration, once in office, would not interfere with a prearranged flow of arms that was going to Israel. In other words, we were going to keep the supply of smart bombs and other weaponry going past the inauguration. And so, the message to Israel, perhaps, was, “Well, we’re still your friends, but not a blank check.” And so, that was a very interesting — it’s just a couple of graphs in my piece, but a very interesting couple of graphs.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah. I wanted to play for you, Sy Hersh, the comments of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He was in Doha Monday attending a summit of the Arab League. Arab leaders are reportedly set to warn Israel time is running out to accept a longstanding peace offer. Syrian President Assad endorsed future peace talks with Israel but said the incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not a serious partner.

    PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: [translated] Since we released the Arab Peace Initiative, we do not have a real partner in the peace process. Israel has killed the Arab initiative and not the Doha summit, as some people are trying to suggest.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Sy Hersh?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, that’s not inconsistent. His argument all along has been that the only way you can really get a systematic peace process going now is bringing in America to broker it. And the American role would be important. It’s a tremendous challenge for the Obama administration diplomatically, which is to nurse an agreement over the Golan Heights, which everybody seems to want, and use that to start talking about regional peace.

And that would mean bringing in Iran, countries like Iran, into the process, at the same time trying to hold off the Israelis, who — I think the main reason Israel would be interested in the Golan Heights settlement is they see a settlement with Syria over the Golan Heights as an issue that would isolate the Iranians from the Syrians and, therefore, give the Israelis more leverage to go after Iran, if they choose to do so, if, this year or next year, the Israelis view Iran as a strategic threat. They don’t view — this is, I would say, certainly Ehud Barak, the defense minister, he does — who’s into the government now. He does not view the Palestinian issue, whether Hamas or Fatah, as strategic. That’s a tactical issue.

The main goal for this government in Israel now is going to be to try and do something to take care of the Iranians. And if they have to deal with Israel — I mean, with Syria and seal that part of the border off and protect themselves and get a settlement there to put more pressure on Iran, that’s the way they view it. The problem is that the Syrians have a different motive for dealing with Israel. They’re not interested in walking away from the Iranian agreement.

So Bush — or, the Obama administration has to somehow walk its way through all of these issues and keep the Israelis happy and also go forward, because, as I said, it’s almost impossible to consider you could — you’re going to be able to extract ourselves from Iraq as peacefully as we want to. We’ve got a lot of boys to get out of there and a lot of damage to repair there. And the idea of having all three of the countries — as I said, Turkey, Syria and Iran — supporting us in that operation is overwhelmingly attractive.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play a clip for you of President Carter. I wanted to ask you about the emerging positions of the Hamas leadership on accepting a long-term agreement with Israel. Carter has met with Hamas officials and relayed their willingness to accept a peace deal with Israel. This is President Carter speaking last April.

    JIMMY CARTER: They said that they would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, if approved by Palestinians, and that they would accept the right of Israel to live as a neighbor next door in peace, provided the agreements negotiated by Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas were submitted to the Palestinians for their overall approval.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what President Carter is saying and also President Carter’s relationship with President Obama, Sy?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah, sure. That’s one of the most amazing things. You know, Jimmy Carter has been a pariah for the American Jewish community and for Israel ever — in recent years because of just the kind of conversations you’ve heard. He’s gone and made visits to the Hamas leadership, and he’s gone to see Bashar Assad of Syria.

It turns out he has a pretty profound relationship with Obama. He met with him privately about ten, twelve days before the inauguration. I wrote about that meeting. It was just the — Carter and his wife and the President, Obama, and his aide David Axelrod. And since then, I think there’s even been more — perhaps even more private meetings. And so, I do understand that it seems inevitable, of course, they would discuss Hamas.

And the fact of the matter is that what Mr. Carter said, Khaled Meshaal, the head who runs the Hamas office in Damascus — I actually interviewed in this piece in The New Yorker — he says literally the same thing. In a sense, he said he would be — Hamas leadership would be willing to leave Syria, as Bush always wanted, if there was an agreement on the Golan Heights. He said he would not stand in the way of Bashar Assad. And he also said, Khaled Meshaal, who said that Iran would be against this kind of an agreement, they would be isolated, as the Israelis think. It was pretty straightforward stuff. What we may — and Meshaal has said to me, in that visit and previous visits, “The Israelis keep on wanting me to talk about Israel publicly and say I recognize Israel. For a man of the resistance, that would be suicidal. But what I do say is — and I’ve said this, too, publicly” — and he said it to Carter — “I understand there’s a state called Israel.” And he’s not — he just won’t say what the Israelis want him to say.

The whole question of how Bush presented things and how Obama presents things, I really — it’s quite amazing. Obama talks about mutual respect. And again, in this article, I mention that instead of going to the Syrians and demanding that they kick Hamas out of Syria — the Hamas has had an office there for years in Syria, much to our anger, the Bush administration’s anger — Hillary Clinton, to her everlasting credit, sent two of her aides to see the Syrians a few weeks ago, and their message was so different. They said, “Look, we know you won’t kick out Hamas. That’s an act you won’t do. We won’t shame you and ask you to shame yourself. What we want you to do, instead of kicking them out, is to try and help us be — help us to get Hamas to be more moderate.” Similarly, about Hezbollah, instead of demanding that Syria, as part of any agreement, disavow Hezbollah, disavow Hamas or disavow Iran, what the Obama people, the message they passed in Syria was, “Look, we think that perhaps the Bush administration was wrong or overzealous in thinking how much control Syria has over Hezbollah. We’re reevaluating that. There may not be as much direct control.”

So you have a new government in place that, I must tell you, for all of the caviling and for all of the concerns I have about Afghanistan and other actions of Mr. Obama, what he’s doing in this part with Syria and Hamas is pretty interesting. He seems to be more willing to accept the reality than the Bush administration was. They saw a world that I don’t think existed.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us. I do want to ask, you never got to talk to David Axelrod about this article? We have ten seconds.

SEYMOUR HERSH: I talked to him about Carter. He was very open. But once I started talking about what Obama wanted to do with the — in terms of getting the Israelis to stop the war short of the inauguration, the war on Gaza, I was treated exactly as Bush would treat me, you know, which is, “Are you kidding?” No response, no response, make appointments, don’t do it. But that’s normal for White Houses. They like the press only — every White House wants the press exactly the way they want it, which is, they want to feed you and take care of you. If you raise questions, they don’t like you. Big deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, joining us today. His latest article in The New Yorker magazine is called “Syria Calling: The Obama Administration’s Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace.”

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