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Israeli president calls for democracy in Syria

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday called for the international community to support a transition to democracy in Syria and also called for support for other youth movements around the Middle East. "I believe that finally a democratic system in Syria is our best bet for the future," Peres said at Tuesday night’s dinner hosted ...

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Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday called for the international community to support a transition to democracy in Syria and also called for support for other youth movements around the Middle East.

"I believe that finally a democratic system in Syria is our best bet for the future," Peres said at Tuesday night's dinner hosted at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). CNN's Wolf Blitzer moderated a question and answer session and probed Peres to explain Israel's stance on a range of pressing regional issues.

"The president of Syria was self assured that the people are in love with him; well, it emerged as an illusion," said Peres. "In politics you have to distinguish between support and supporters. Support exists as long as you own the government, when you're in crisis the supporters disappear."

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday called for the international community to support a transition to democracy in Syria and also called for support for other youth movements around the Middle East.

"I believe that finally a democratic system in Syria is our best bet for the future," Peres said at Tuesday night’s dinner hosted at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). CNN’s Wolf Blitzer moderated a question and answer session and probed Peres to explain Israel’s stance on a range of pressing regional issues.

"The president of Syria was self assured that the people are in love with him; well, it emerged as an illusion," said Peres. "In politics you have to distinguish between support and supporters. Support exists as long as you own the government, when you’re in crisis the supporters disappear."

Peres said that Israel was ready to give up the Golan Heights as part of an overarching peace deal with Syria, but only if Damascus would totally reject its alliance with Tehran and its dependence on Iranian support.

"If Syria will divorce the Iranians and the Hezbollah we are very close. If they want to have it both ways then nothing will happen," he said.

The dinner event at the USIP’s brand new landmark headquarters on Constitution Avenue was hosted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and its executive director former Congressman Robert Wexler. Award-winning Israeli violinist Kobi Malkin performed for the audience of diplomats, lawmakers, officials, and journalists.

Speaking more broadly about the region, Peres repeated his call for advancing the Middle East peace process as a means of supporting and aligning with the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.

"In order to enable the young generation to take over and go their way, we have to find a solution for the conflict between us and the Palestinians. I would like to see that our conflict will follow the nature of these awakenings," Peres said.

The Israeli president said that Israel supports the transition to democracy ongoing in Egypt, despite the possibility that the new government might not be as reliable as the old regime in supporting the peace process.

"I have to be fair and say that President Mubarak played one role that we appreciated very much and that was to prevent another war in the Middle East — and we shall never forget it," he said. "But I think the fact that the young generation took over and tried to tell their people, we have to join in the new age of modern life and we cannot go on with corruption, division, dictatorship — I think it’s a good opening which is needed for the Egyptians and we welcome it very much.

Peres said that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could very well be a large political player in the next Egyptian government — but will never be the majority and do not represent the solution to Egypt’s problems.

"Suppose they’ll pray ten times a day. Will this solve the problems of Egypt? The problems of Egypt are not prayers, but poverty. And many of the young people understand this. And they may have overplayed their hand."

Peres’s call for change and democracy did not extend to Jordan, however, where he said the international community should support and help King Abdullah II.

"He is a responsible leader who is trying to serve his people," he said. "He is in a very difficult situation economically. And if we are really serious, we have to help him to overcome the economic difficulties."

Peres also said that any Israelis who think that President Barack Obama isn’t a strong supporter of Israel are wrong. He noted that Obama told him — and has shown through his deeds — that the U.S. president will always place Israel’s security at the top of his priority list.

"I trust the president. I think he is serious. I think he has a dilemma that all of us have. The dilemma is between following the call of values, the primacy of the moral choice, and the realistic situation which is not necessarily as moral as you would like it to be," he said.

Government officials in attendance included Sens. Chris Coons, Frank Lautenberg, and Bill Nelson; Reps. Gary Ackerman, Shelley Berkley, Dan Burton, Steve Cohen, Ted Deutch, Jim Moran, Jerrold Nadler, Nancy Pelosi, David Price, and Jan Schakowsky; State Department Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Richard Morningstar Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs; Ronald Schlicker; Director of the State Department Office of Israel & Palestinian Affairs Paul Sutphin; and Deputy Secretary for Near East Affairs Jacob Walles.

Diplomats in attendance included Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Jordanian Ambassador Alia Hatoug-Bouran, E.U. Ambassador João Vale de Almeida, Azerbaijan Ambassador Yashar Aliyev, Cyprus Ambassador Pavlos Anastasiades, Georgian Ambassador Temuri Yakobashvili, Chief Representative of the PLO Maen Areikat, and representatives from the embassies of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Egypt.

Most of the guests were getting their first look at the lavish USIP building, which was built with more than $100 million in taxpayer funds and approximately $50 million in private donations. Several guests noted the irony of unveiling the new building right in the middle of a huge government fight — in which Republicans passed a bill that would completely eliminate the $41 million annual budget of USIP.

The building itself represents the cooperation of Jews and Muslims from the Middle East. The building was designed by an Israeli architect, the huge dove-shaped sculpture that makes up a large part of the roof was designed by an Iranian artist, and a large chunk of the private funding came from a donor in the UAE.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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