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A Congressional delegation headed by US Senators John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday that they are squarely against the Baker-Hamilton report calling for the US to engage in dialogue with Iran and Syria, according to officials present at the meeting.
According to the officials, McCain and Lieberman said the report was just one of several circulating in Washington, and did not represent US policy.
The report also called for an international peace conference, along the lines of the 1991 Madrid conference. Lieberman said it was as if former secretary of state James Baker, one of the heads of the committee and an architect of the Madrid conference, re-cycled 15-year-old ideas.
McCain, touted as one of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls in 2008, alluded to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's current trip to Damascus, when he told Olmert that he was opposed to fellow senators visiting Syria.
It is a mistake, McCain was quoted as saying, added that these visits not only made Damascus look legitimate but gave the impression that the US was not united vis- -vis Syria.
McCain and Lieberman were part of a five-person congressional delegation that arrived in Israel on Sunday for two days of talks after visits to Afghanistan and Iraq. The other members of the delegation were senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and John Thune (R-South Dakota), and Representative Mark Kirk (R-Illinois).
The delegation also met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, as well as with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
The senators, according to the officials at the Olmert meeting, also criticized the Baker-Hamilton report for linking the current instability in the Middle East to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Collins was quoted as having told Olmert that it seemed ridiculous to say that Sunni-Shi'ite fighting has anything to do with Israel and the Palestinians.
Olmert told the delegation Israel wanted to reach a peace agreement with Syria, but that the regime in Damascus was not interested in talking peace, was Iran's main ally, and continued to support terrorism in the PA and extremists in Lebanon and Iraq. Olmert pointed out that Hamas head Khaled Mashaal is based in Damascus because no other country was willing to give him shelter or patronage.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni took the delegation on a helicopter tour of the South on Monday, bringing to mind the same type of tour in 1998 that then-prime minister Ariel Sharon gave to then-Texas governor George W. Bush. That chopper ride has gone down in Israeli political lore as the event that solidified the close relationship between Bush and Sharon.
The tour of the South included a briefing with OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, focusing on preventing the Kassam rocket fire from Gaza.
McCain, who spent five grueling years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, met with the families of captive soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser on Sunday, sharing his own harrowing story of survival behind enemy lines and promising to work for their release.
Hizbullah abducted Regev and Goldwasser on July 12. Their captors have not provided any signs that they are alive.
"I don't know if I was able to bring comfort, but we certainly said we would do everything in our power to bring attention to the situation and see that Geneva Conventions are observed," McCain said.
McCain was shot down over North Vietnam during a bombing run in 1967. During his five years in captivity - two spent in solitary confinement - McCain was frequently tortured and thought to be on the verge of death.
Omri Avni, Goldwasser's father-in-law, said McCain's experience provided his family a shred of optimism. "We know [McCain] was captured and held in Vietnam for five years and he suffered a lot and he is now known to be a hero," Avni said. "This is a very good hope for us, because even after five years [in captivity] there is new life. We are hoping that after five months we can get our boys back to start a new life."
Lieberman also assured the families of continued efforts to bring about the soldiers' safe return. "I think [McCain's] life story is a great a source of hope to the families," Lieberman said. "We will go beyond that, as we promised them, and do everything we can diplomatically and politically."
AP contributed to this report.
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