A day after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the US would take part in a "neighbors meeting" with Syrian and Iranian representatives on stabilizing Iraq, Israeli officials said Jerusalem had no need to "feel threatened" by the move. Government officials in Jerusalem said the decision "is about Iraq," and that when it comes to Iraq, "Israel is not the one to tell the administration what to do." The US, meanwhile, reassured Israel that its policy on Teheran's nuclear program remained firm, despite its willingness to sit with Iranian representatives.
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Rice, hosting acting President Dalia Itzik in Washington, stressed to her that Iraq would be the central focus of the regional talks slated for next month.
"I couldn't detect any cracks in the American position on the Iranian nuclear issue," Itzik told Israeli reporters following the meeting.
Rice, testifying before the Senate Tuesday, announced that the US would participate in the new Iraqi diplomatic initiative to meet with its neighbors in order to improve the situation in the war-torn nation.
"I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to attend both of these regional meetings. We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve the relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region," she said.
In speaking to the press Wednesday, the Bush administration asserted that it had not changed its policy on Iran. The media had described Rice's announcement as a departure from the administration's long-standing refusal to meet with the Iranians unless they stopped enriching uranium.
While State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not rule out bilateral talks with Iran during the Iraq discussions, White House spokesman Tony Snow said later on Wednesday, "There will not be bilateral talks between the United States and Iran or the United States and Syria within the context of these meetings."
Snow pointed to several instances of contacts with Iran on the subject of Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 to suggest that the US had taken similar action before, and said, "As for whether the United States has changed its policy dramatically, it has not."
Israeli officials also downplayed the importance of the meeting for overall US policy, saying it was not likely to affect America's firm position on the need for Syria to stop supporting regional terrorism, or for Iran to stop its march toward nuclear weapons.
The officials said the Prime Minister's Office was neither surprised by the move, nor felt that the decision was in any way "an affront."
"The Americans will be talking to Syria about a certain situation that relates to them," the officials said, minimizing the possibility that this could lead to greater US engagement with Syria that could be detrimental to Israel. "Let's not put the cart before the horse."
The officials said the meeting would not impact on Jerusalem's position that the time was not ripe for Israeli negotiations with Damascus because of Syrian President Bashar Assad's massive support for Hamas and Hizbullah.
Nevertheless, the move does represent at least a tactical change in Bush administration policy, which until now was opposed to including Iran and Syria in plans to stabilize Iraq. "The fact that the Americans want to talk to Syria and Iran about Iraq has to do with American policy on Iraq. Israel's basic issues with Syria are different - we want peace with Syria, but we don't think their actions show us they want peace with Israel," the officials said.
A Western diplomatic official in Israel also downplayed the significance the decision could possibly have for Israel. The US, the official said, is not as a result of the meeting "going to negotiate over the Golan with Syria."
The "neighbors meeting," which is expected to take place this month, is slated to include representatives of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference.
Rice, who since last spring has repeatedly offered to meet one-on-one with the Iranians only if they comply with international demands to halt uranium enrichment and stop other steps toward obtaining a nuclear weapon, is expected to attend follow-up discussions in the region at some point.