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A bipartisan Congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will give Syrian President Bashar Assad messages from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the families of the kidnapped IDF soldiers and late Israeli spy Eli Cohen.
Cohen was executed in Syria in 1965, and his family wants him to be reburied in Israel.
Pelosi irked US President George W. Bush with her decision to include Syria in the lawmakers' tour. The White House last week called Pelosi's stop in Damascus a "bad decision," because of Syria's support for terrorism.
In a speech at a state dinner held in her honor at the Knesset on Sunday, Pelosi responded by vowing to present Israel's case to the leaders of Syria. She spoke emotionally of her meetings with the families of the kidnapped soldiers and held up the soldiers' dog tags, which she said she displays prominently at her office in Congress and would bring with her to Damascus.
"I will send a message to the president of Syria from the families of the soldiers and from the Cohen family as well," Pelosi said. "We must counter the terrorists' vision of apocalypse and despair with our own vision of hope. International forces in Lebanon must implement the UN resolution effectively. Hizbullah must be disarmed. Iran must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon."
A source close to Olmert said after his meeting with the Congressmen that he would ask them to convey to Assad that Israel was interested in peace with Syria but that Syria must first stop supporting terrorism. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), the first Muslim elected to the House, told The Jerusalem Post he had a message of his own for the Syrian leader.
"I will tell Assad that it's in the interests of everyone in the Middle East to have peace in the region and that Syria has an important role to play in that," Ellison said. "I will recommend that he start with goodwill gestures like releasing the kidnapped soldiers.
He should move forward with the peace process to have a more prosperous region."
Olmert told the US legislators that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was a terrorist and that Israel will not speak with terrorists, even if they have the title of prime minister.
A congressman asked Olmert about the value of removing American troops from Iraq in increasing Israel's security. Olmert noticeably avoided answering the question.
At the state dinner, Pelosi questioned the need for the continued presence of American forces in Iraq, delivering an opinion that is very different from Olmert's previously stated position against a premature US withdrawal.
When Likud MK Yuval Steinitz told her at the dinner, "Most MKs say that when your soldiers are getting killed daily in Iraq it's up to you to make the political decision when to withdraw, and we're not interfering, even if someone gave you a different impression," Pelosi responded that she appreciated Israel's noninterference.
She saluted acting President Dalia Itzik for being the first woman Knesset speaker, comparing her to former prime minister Golda Meir.
In her speech, Itzik applauded the US House of Representatives for allowing a woman to head it after more than 230 years, when in Israel it took only 58 years. She expressed hope that Pelosi's visit to Syria would have positive results.
"Your decision to visit Syria has raised controversy in your country and ours," Itzik said. "I believe in your good intentions. Maybe this step that is seen as unpopular will convince the Syrian people and their leaders to abandon the axis of evil and stop supporting the terrorists and giving shelter to their commanders, and send a message that they need to make a strategic choice that will give hope to the people of Syria and citizens of the entire region."
The US lawmakers are scheduled to meet with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Monday and later travel to Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Ellison is scheduled to meet Monday with the mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Hussein, at the Aksa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City. Ellison said Saturday that his presence as a Muslim on the trip sent a message to Israelis and Palestinians that "people can come together" and "reconciliation is possible."
Pelosi's visit to Israel is her second to the Middle East since she took over the leadership of the House in January and is an indication she plans to play a significant role in foreign policy.
Other congressmen traveling with Pelosi and Ellison included Henry Waxman and Tom Lantos of California, Louise Slaughter of New York, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, and David Hobson of Ohio.
AP contributed to this report.