- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

JERUSALEM — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will tell Syrian leaders when she visits Damascus this week that Israel will engage in peace talks only if Syria stops supporting Palestinian militants, an Israeli official said yesterday.

Mrs. Pelosi, leading a congressional delegation on a Middle East tour, was asked to pass along the message during a meeting yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“Pelosi is conveying that Israel is willing to talk if [Syria] would openly take steps to stop supporting terrorism,” Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said. “But at this point the Syrian government, by openly backing terror all around the Middle East, is not a partner for negotiations.”

Israel and Syria are sworn enemies, though peace talks came close to success in 2000 before breaking down. Israel charges that Syria-based Palestinian militants are directing violence against it from the West Bank and Gaza.

Washington considers Syria a sponsor of terrorism, and the Bush administration had asked Mrs. Pelosi not to visit Damascus.

“I think most Americans would not think that the leader of the Democratic Party in the Congress should be meeting with the heads of a state sponsor of terror,” White House counselor Dan Bartlett said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Mrs. Pelosi said yesterday that when she meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad, she will raise the issue of two Israeli soldiers captured by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and a third captured by Palestinian militants last year. The delegation met with the families of the three soldiers during the visit to Israel.

Mrs. Pelosi’s trip with six other lawmakers also includes stops in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Last night, Mrs. Pelosi told Israeli lawmakers during a dinner in the parliament building that the United States remains strongly behind their country.

“Americans have many political differences, but we stand united with Israel now and always,” she said.

The meeting with Mr. Olmert took an hour, twice as long as planned, and delayed Israel’s Cabinet meeting, Mrs. Eisin said. Mr. Olmert and the delegation talked “extensively” about a Saudi peace plan, dormant since 2002 but renewed last week at an Arab League summit.

Mr. Olmert has welcomed the plan, which calls for a recognition by all Arab states of Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in 1967 as a “revolutionary change.” He has expressed reservations, as well.

Mrs. Pelosi and the delegation, which includes the first Muslim member of Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today.

Mr. Ellison also is scheduled to meet with the mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, at the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Mr. Ellison said Saturday that his presence, as a Muslim, on the trip sends a message to Israelis and Palestinians that “people can come together.”

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