- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday rejected a U.S. advisory group’s conclusion that resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians would help stabilize the war between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq.

“The attempt to create a linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue — we have a different view,” Mr. Olmert told reporters a day after the U.S. Iraq Study Group released a report with 79 recommendations to help pacify Iraq.

Chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, the group said U.S. success in Iraq depends on a “renewed and sustained commitment” by the United States to a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The report also proposed new negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in a 1967 war, and negotiations over the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel during the 1948 war that created the Jewish state.

Asked about Mr. Olmert’s comments, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration will “make decisions about our national policy fundamentally based on our national interest in doing what we think is right.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does not view the Baker-Hamilton report as a criticism of the administration’s policies, Mr. McCormack told reporters in Washington.

He noted that Miss Rice will most likely travel to the Middle East “early in the new year” in an attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“She’s secretary of state and she has to deal with the entire world, but it certainly is at the top of her list in terms of issues that she is personally engaged on,” Mr. McCormack said.

The specter of Mr. Baker’s involvement was particularly troubling for many Israelis.

“If Bush accepts the recommendations, Israelis are going to face pressure that they’re not used to,” said Gershon Baskin, co-chairman of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.

Mr. Baker is remembered for pressing former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to attend an international peace conference in Madrid in 1991, where Israel was forced to sit down with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization for the first time.

Mr. Baker also used financial aid to Israel to pressure the Shamir government to stop expanding Jewish settlements.

“We thought after the six years of Bush, that the policies which Baker represents had died,” said Zevulun Orlev, a member of the right wing National Religious Party who bristled at the idea of renewed negotiations with Syria.

“There is no blocking of the countries that represent a threat to Israel, like Iran and Syria. The recommendations even give them legitimacy,” he said.

The head of the Arab League yesterday endorsed the Iraq Study Group’s suggestion for a regional conference on the war in Iraq, and said the gathering must include Iran and Syria.

“It’s the right decision to talk with all the neighbors of Iraq, and that includes Syria and Iran,” said Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the League of Arab States and a former foreign secretary of Egypt, during a visit to Washington yesterday.

“A policy to isolate any country doesn’t work,” Mr. Moussa said. “All have influence [in Iraq]. They all can create other problems in other situations in the region.”

The Cairo-based Arab League, whose 22 members include such major Sunni Arab regimes as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, earlier this week endorsed the idea of a “national reconciliation conference” to be held soon in Baghdad. The meeting would bring together the Shi’ite-dominated government with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions.

Mr. Moussa also strongly embraced the Baker-Hamilton panel’s call for a more active U.S. role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The honest broker role is still open to the United States — and only to the United States — to play in the region,” he said. “I believe there is the capacity and the intention for the United States to once again play that role.”

Israeli doves said the Iraq policy recommendations could be helpful if it prompts the United States to become more active in promoting peace negotiations. Aside from the stalled “road map” peace initiative and a special military envoy to the Palestinian Consulate, the Bush administration has been very hands off regarding the peace process.

“George Bush, in his friendship, has abandoned us. I prefer friends like James Baker to George Bush. James Baker at least cares what goes on here,” said Yossi Sarid, a former parliament member from the dovish Meretz party. “George Bush has ignored this area for years, except for the disaster that he leveled on Iraq. So at least he owes us for what was done in Iraq.”

Nicholas Kralev and David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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