DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Fresh on the heels of a regional summit in Doha where President Bashar al-Assad had reaffirmed his support for resistance against Israel while expressing reservations about the Arab Peace Initiative, the Syrian president dropped a bombshell by embarking on an epoch-making visit to Tel Aviv, Wednesday morning.
“Nobody saw this coming,” said Mark Burnes, a State Department analyst who monitors Syrian affairs. “We knew that they were close to a deal, but the Israelis didn’t tell us how close.”
Security arrangements appeared to have been made in advance to permit the passage of the presidential aircraft into Israeli airspace, and a small retinue of high-level ministers and military officials awaited al-Assad at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International airport.
The highly secret preparations for the visit, however had produced an improbable breach of diplomatic protocol: the absence of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu among the ministerial welcoming delegation. Official sources say that earlier that same morning, the Israeli PM had himself embarked upon an epoch-making visit to Syria, touching down in Damascus International Airport only 6 minutes after President al-Assad arrived in Tel Aviv.
A high-level source in the Syrian Foreign Ministry said that they were baffled by an alert from the Syrian Air Defense Force, notifying them that an Israeli civilian aircraft had entered Syrian airspace and was requesting permission to land in Damascus.
“We had scrambled four MiG-29 interceptors, but when the pilots of the Israeli jet explained who was on board their aircraft, our Air Force High Command relayed the message to us with a request for clarification,” the Foreign Ministry source said.
Asked if the Syrians had been expecting a reciprocal visit from Netanyahu at a later stage, the source responded, “All that I can say is that the scheduling error was committed by the Israelis. We were supposed to visit first.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the mix-up, but a source in the Prime Minister’s office confirmed that the ball appeared to have been dropped by the Israelis.
“Our staff has been stretched to the breaking point for the past three weeks, trying to form the ruling coalition and putting together the cabinet. Netanyahu has been meeting MK’s until all hours of the night; he’s exhausted and over-worked. It’s understandable that a scheduling error might occur under these circumstances,” the advisor said.
Responding to a question about the potential outcome of this logistical mishap, a source in the British Foreign Office said: “Well, it certainly changes the story a bit, doesn’t it? This was supposed to be the “Sadat goes to Jerusalem” moment, but they fouled it up. They’re like ships passing in the night… or, airplanes passing in the day, or whatever.”
As of this writing, Prime Minister Netanyahu was still in the air returning from Damascus to Tel Aviv, where he will be received by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
By QIFA NABKI — 3 hours ago
[To read more about the visit, click here.]