The White House will not pressure Israel into talking to the Syrians, senior diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said Wednesday night, despite the Iraq Study Group report released Wednesday that called for a Madrid-style peace conference as well as direct Israeli-Syrian negotiations that could lead to a return of the Golan Heights. "The prime minister met with [US President George W.] Bush last month," the officials said. "He said afterward that there will be no US pressure to enter into talks with the Syrians. You can imagine he knew what he was talking about." The report, written by a team that was headed by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, recommended polices that would - if accepted by Bush - lead to a dramatic shift in US Middle East policy.
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The recommendations included a call for the US to "constructively" engage the Syrians and embark on a "renewed and sustained" commitment to a "comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush's June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This commitment must include direct talks with, by, and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians (those who accept Israel's right to exist), and Syria."
The report said that in exchange for a dramatic change in Syrian behavior in Lebanon and toward terrorist organizations, "in the context of a full and secure peace agreement, the Israelis should return the Golan Heights, with a US security guarantee for Israel that could include an international force on the border, including US troops if requested by both parties."
Neither the Prime Minister's Office nor the Foreign Ministry were willing to comment on the matter, saying that it was an internal US document.
It is very unlikely that there will be any formal reaction either from Olmert or Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, because the report is viewed only as a recommendation, and not a change in US policy. Jerusalem will likely only respond when it becomes clear which elements of the paper Bush adopts.
Nevertheless, a team has been set up in the Foreign Ministry to study the recommendations, and Livni will be meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington over the weekend. Livni will be in Washington attending the annual Saban Forum, and Foreign Ministry officials denied that her meeting with Rice had anything to do with the Baker-Hamilton report.
After weeks of downplaying the report as an internal US document that would deal primarily with Iraq, there was some surprise in Jerusalem Wednesday that it also dealt extensively with the Israeli-Arab conflict.
"The United States does its ally Israel no favors in avoiding direct involvement to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict," the report said. It said that "bold action" was needed because there was no military solution to the conflict.
According to the report, "no American administration - Democratic or Republican - will ever abandon Israel, and political engagement and dialogue are essential in the Arab-Israeli dispute because it is an axiom that when the political process breaks down there will be violence on the ground."
A stepped up diplomatic effort, the report said, "would strongly support moderate Arab governments in the region, especially the democratically elected government of Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas."
Regarding the Palestinian track, the report said that adherence to the "land for peace" formula was the only basis for achieving peace, and that there was a need to consolidate the Gaza cease-fire and lend support for a Palestinian national unity government.
In addition, the report called for "sustainable negotiations leading to a final peace settlement along the lines of President Bush's two-state solution, which would address the key final status issues of borders, settlements, Jerusalem, the right of return, and the end of conflict." There was no mention of the road map peace plan.
As for Bush's Iraqi policy, the commission said bluntly that it "is not working," and called for an urgent diplomatic attempt to stabilize the country and allow withdrawal of most coalition combat troops by early 2008.
After nearly four years of war and the deaths of more than 2,900 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis, the situation is "grave and deteriorating" and America's ability "to influence events within Iraq is diminishing," the commission warned.
It recommended the US reduce "political, military or economic support" for Iraq if the government in Baghdad cannot make substantial progress toward providing for its own security."
The report said Bush should set aside misgivings and engage Syria, Iran and the leaders of insurgent forces in negotiations on Iraq's future by year's end. It also urged him to revive efforts at a broader Middle East peace. Barring a significant change, it warned of a "slide toward chaos."
The recommendations came at a pivotal time, with Bush under domestic pressure to change course and with the new, Democratic-controlled Congress certain to cast a skeptical look at administration policy.
Additionally, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the architect of the administration's war policy, has resigned. His replacement, Robert Gates, is on track for Senate confirmation this week after a remarkable assessment of his own - that the United States is not winning the war.
In a slap at the Pentagon, the commission said there is "significant underreporting" of the actual level of violence in the country. It also faulted the US intelligence effort, saying the government "still does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of the militias."
On the highly emotional issue of troop withdrawals, the commission warned against either a precipitous pullback or an open-ended commitment to a large deployment.
"Military priorities must change," the report said, toward a goal of training, equipping and advising Iraqi forces. "We should seek to complete the training and equipping mission by the end of the first quarter of 2008."
The commission recommended the number of US troops embedded to train Iraqis should increase dramatically, from 3,000-4,000 currently to 10,000-20,000. Commission member William Perry, defense secretary in the Clinton administration, said those could be drawn from combat brigades already in Iraq.
The report intensifies pressure on Bush to change direction, but he is under no obligation to follow its recommendations. Still to come are options being developed in separate studies by the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council. The White House says he will make decisions within weeks.
"If the president is serious about the need for change in Iraq, he will find Democrats ready to work with him in a bipartisan fashion to find a way to end the war as quickly as possible," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who is in line to become leader of the House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January.
"The president has the ball in his court now... and we're going to be watching very closely," said Harry Reid, the Democrat who will take over as Senate majority leader next year.
Bush received the report in an early morning meeting at the White House with commission members. He pledged to treat each proposal seriously and act in a "timely fashion." He was flanked by the panel's co-chairmen, former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton in a remarkable scene - a president praising the work of a group that had just concluded his policy had led to chaos and risked worse.
"Many Americans are understandably dissatisfied," Hamilton said later at a news conference that marked the formal release of the results of the commission's eight-month labors.
"There is no magic bullet," said Baker.
The report painted a grim picture of Iraq nearly four years after US forces toppled Saddam Hussein.
It warned that if the situation continues to deteriorate, there is a risk of a "slide toward chaos [that] could trigger the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe."
"Neighboring countries could intervene... The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized," commissioners said.
Baker, Hamilton and the other members of the commission traveled to the Capitol from the White House to present their findings to senior lawmakers.
The report makes 79 separate recommendations on Iraq policy.
Bush has rejected establishing timetables for withdrawing the 140,000 US troops and has said he isn't looking for "some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq." But Baker, Hamilton and the other eight members of the commission said the status quo was unacceptable.
"Violence is increasing in scope and lethality. It is fed by a Sunni Arab insurgency, Shi'ite militias, death squads, al-Qaida and widespread criminality. Sectarian conflict is the principal challenge to stability," the report said.
The commission's recommendation to have US forces embedded with Iraqi units reflects an approach the military already has been emphasizing in recent months. But administration officials say Iraqis are not yet ready to go it alone against the insurgency.
US allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, say the Arab-Israeli conflict underlies other Mideast problems and that rancor from the impasse makes other issues harder to solve.
The commission recommended that a "diplomatic offensive" begin by December 31 aimed at building an international consensus for stability in Iraq, and that it include every country in the region.