Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "firmly believes and trusts" that US President George W. Bush will not pressure Israel to open peace talks with Syria in the near future as recommended by the Iraq Study Group report. He also rejects the connection the report makes between US problems in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli issue. "The attempt to create linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue - we have a different view, and I think that President Bush shares [this] view," Olmert said Thursday at the annual Editors Press Conference in Tel Aviv. "The things I heard from Bush and senior administration officials about Syria, in the days when it was already becoming clear what the Baker-Hamilton report would recommend, was that there would be no change in the Syria policy."
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"There are other problems in the Middle East that have nothing to do with us, and I believe that the current administration is of this view, too," he said.
Olmert said the Iraqi issue was "first and foremost an American issue," and as the US was a democracy, there were differing views regarding future policies in Iraq within Congress and the administration.
The Iraq Study Group report was presented to the Bush administration on Wednesday. It posits an American exit strategy from Iraq via regional dialogue, and calls on Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a comprehensive peace.
Olmert said the report was only "one opinion out of many" making the rounds in America, and "not the American position."
The report was written by a team headed by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton. It recommended policies that would - if accepted by Bush - lead to a dramatic shift in US Middle East policy.
"We respect James Baker greatly, but we don't have to agree with everything he says," Olmert said.
"There are all kinds of attitudes inside the US, but ultimately, policy is determined by President Bush," he said. "I trust his wisdom and leadership. He will reach the conclusion that is best for America. The problems in Iraq are entirely independent of the problems between us and the Palestinians. Nobody has to convince us to move forward toward peace, we hope the Palestinians will come along in the process."
The Iraq Study Group recommendations include a call for the US to "constructively" engage the Syrians and to 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."
In the coming weeks the Pentagon, State Department and the National Security Council are to deliver their own recommendations on Iraq policy. The White House is also reportedly working on an assessment.
It is unclear if these reports will also recommend a US-Syria, Israel-Syria rapprochement. If they do, Israeli observers say, Bush will find it difficult to defend his policy of not talking to the Syrians, and this in turn could lead to some form of pressure on Israel to enter into talks with Damascus.
A high-ranking official in the US National Security Council recently told The Jerusalem Post there was "no reward great enough" America or Israel could offer Damascus, as Syria is demanding a halt to the UN probe into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, renewed influence in Lebanon and the return of the Golan Heights.
"Since there are no carrots big enough to offer the Syrians, all that is left are the sticks. Even if Olmert were to go to Damascus and offer talks, it is not clear what he would find there," the source said, adding that Syria feels emboldened by Hizbullah's performance against the IDF in July and August.
Olmert said former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin had offered concessions to the Syrians for peace.
"Both Barak and Rabin were ready to talk about a full withdrawal from the Golan," he said. "I think that [former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu] Bibi was also of this opinion.
"But the question now is what we can expect in return from Syria. Syria is undermining the Lebanese government, it supports Hamas, so this does not paint a positive picture of starting peace talks in the near future."
Repeating comments he made during a trip to the US last month, and which aroused some consternation in Congress, Olmert said "the removal of Saddam Hussein was a major, major source of stability in our region."
Regarding recent Military Intelligence estimates pointing to a high likelihood of renewed war with Hizbullah and possible conflict with Syria in 2007, Olmert said neither Israel nor Syria were interested in war. However there were "no good signs and conditions" for peace talks with Damascus, he said.
Olmert said he had heard from "the highest sources in the US" that America had been trying to separate Syria from Iran, from Hamas and from Hizbullah for the past five years to no avail. He said many top military and academic experts in Israel were of the opinion that Damascus would not change its policies in the near future.
Regarding Iran, Olmert said he felt "much less worried" after his latest meeting with Bush in Washington. "I know of nobody in the US administration who thinks there is any justification for a nuclear Iran," he said.