Olmert rejects key finding by study group on Mideast

JERUSALEM -- One of the key findings of the Iraq Study Group -that efforts to stabilize Iraq must go hand-in-hand with a Mideast peace plan - ran head-on into its first obstacle yesterday when it was rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In the report released on Wednesday, the bipartisan panel advocated a renewed U.S. commitment to bring Israel, the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria together for talks and argued that the United States would not be able to achieve its broader goals in the region unless the Arab-Israel conflict is resolved.


"Iraq cannot be addressed effectively in isolation from other major regional issues, interests, and unresolved conflicts," said the report of the study group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat.

But Olmert disagreed with the panel's conclusions, which, he pointed out, run counter to the policies of President Bush until now.


"I can say that insofar as the attempt to create a linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Middle East issue, we hold a different opinion," said Olmert, speaking during a news conference in Tel Aviv. "To the best of my understanding, President Bush, throughout all the recent years, also has had a different opinion. As for what he decides about the report, its recommendations, I don't know."

During a news conference in Washington, however, Bush appeared to support the report's conclusion that the Iraq conflict is connected to the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and across the broader Middle East. The president has not yet indicated how he may alter his Middle East strategy.

Olmert's rejection of the link between Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict comes as no surprise. Israeli leaders have long dismissed international efforts to lump the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with broader tensions in the region.

"Israel has been loath to be dragged into an international conference in which it faces all of its neighbors and [in] which it would be clearly isolated. I don't think tactically it's a good idea to package everything together," said Raymond Cohen, professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Palestinian officials were more open to the panel's recommendations.

"We welcome the Hamilton-Baker report and hope the U.S. administration will translate it into deeds," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "The region needs peace, the region needs dialogue and we have always stuck to dialogue toward a comprehensive peace."

One of the most troubling recommendations of the report for Olmert is its call for Israel to sit down with Syria, its longtime foe and supporter of Palestinian militant groups operating in the West Bank and Gaza.

The report says Israel should return the Golan Heights, which Israel seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in exchange for Syria's agreement to cut off its support for Palestinian militant groups, end arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon and stop meddling in Lebanese affairs.


But Olmert flatly rejected such proposals yesterday, as he has in the past, saying the time was not right for talks.

"I don't think there is a Syrian desire for war with us. We definitely have no desire to fight them. This does not mean the conditions to allow us to conduct negotiations have ripened," Olmert said.

"In my view, Syria's subversive operations, its support for Hamas - which may be what's preventing real negotiations with the Palestinians - do not give much hope for negotiations with Syria any time soon," he added. "The question of what we'll give to the Syrians interests me less than the question of what they'll give to us."

Syrian President Bashar Assad has called in recent months for a new round of talks with Israel, a move supported by some top members of the Israeli government. Among them is Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

"In order to weaken the radical axis, we must be open to the [words] of peace voiced by the president of Syria. However, first Syria must stop the terror and cease giving Hamas an umbrella," said Peretz, according to Israeli press reports.

But critics of the Baker-Hamilton report say that entering into negotiations with Syria would be rewarding Syria's links with militant groups.


"Syria over the last number of years has been supporting international terrorism both with respect to Israel and Lebanon and respect to Iraq. To embrace them in a diplomatic dialogue is to legitimate their policies," said Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

During U.S.-sponsored peace talks in 1999-2000, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to return most of the Golan Heights to Syria. But one of the sticking points is that Syria wants to return to the pre-1967 borders with Israel, which would give Damascus control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main source of fresh water.

On the Palestinian front, Olmert welcomed the report's calls for renewed efforts to begin a peace process.

The report also backed the Bush administration's policy of boycotting of the Hamas-led government, which refuses to recognize Israel, and supporting moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to lead negotiations with Israel.

Olmert said he wants to build on the 12-day-old cease-fire with Palestinian militants in Gaza and advocated working "with all our might" to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.


The Associated Press contributed to this article.