TEL AVIV, (Reuters) – Israel’s prime minister said on Thursday it was wrong to link the Arab-Israeli conflict with wider problems in the Middle East and ruled out any immediate talks with Syria despite a U.S. report calling for them.
Ehud Olmert said he expected little pressure from Washington after the high-profile report by the Iraq Study Group, which urged President George W. Bush to push for Arab-Israeli peace as part of efforts to ease regional tensions. “The Middle East has a lot of problems that are not connected to us,” Olmert told newspaper editors in Tel Aviv. “I am not convinced that this report foists all of the U.S.’s troubles on Israel’s shoulders.”
The report from a bipartisan commission led by former secretary of state James Baker said the United States could not achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it dealt directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While the report dealt mostly with proposed shifts of course in the unpopular war in Iraq, its key recommendations included a call for direct talks as soon as possible involving Israel, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians.
Olmert said he had heard nothing at a meeting with Bush in Washington last month that indicated a change in the U.S. position not to negotiate with Syria. “I can only say that the opinions I heard from the president and from all senior administration staff on the Syrian issue are such that he did not see a feasibility in talks on the American-Syrian track or on the Israeli-Syrian track,” he said.
Olmert said the time was not ripe for talks with Syria, partly because of Damascus’s support for the ruling Palestinian movement Hamas, a militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction. “The way Syria is acting these days, especially its subversive action in Lebanon and its support for the extremist Hamas … does not create a picture of the possibility for talks in the near future,” he said.
U.S. mid-term elections last month showed deep discontent with the war in Iraq and raised speculation in Israel that Bush could try to cap his two-term presidency with progress on Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
Arab leaders say the festering Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the core of the Middle East’s deepening woes. Peace talks foundered in mid-2000, just before a Palestinian uprising began.
The last round of talks between Israel and Syria came close to agreement but eventually collapsed early in 2000, mostly over who would control the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee in a return of the occupied Golan Heights to Syria.
Israel seized the Heights in the 1967 Middle East war. It also captured the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, land that the Palestinians want for a future state.
The Iraq Study Group did say Syria must meet a list of international demands such as halting aid to Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrilla group, which fought a war with Israel in the summer.
Olmert repeated his desire for substantive talks with the Palestinians, although he has ruled out negotiations with Hamas.
Hamas took office in March after trouncing the Fatah movement of moderate President Mahmoud Abbas in elections. Abbas has said repeatedly he is ready to meet Olmert any time.
Abbas’s office welcomed the U.S. panel’s report and its calls for a broad Middle East peace. Hamas rejected it, saying the core problem was Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.