Olmert distances Israel from Iraq

Olmert may be the only one left sharing Bush’s view of the Middle East (Israeli Prime MInister’s Office)

JERUSALEM (IPS) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was doing his best to persuade a skeptical audience of journalists that a report by a U.S. advisory group, which linked the chaos in Iraq to the unresolved conflict between Israel and its neighbours, would have no impact on U.S. policy in the region.

“The Iraqi issue is first and foremost an American issue,” he insisted. “I trust President Bush. I trust his judgment, his wisdom and his leadership. One thing is clear to most Americansathe problems in Iraq are entirely independent of us and the Palestinians.”

The Israeli leader spent much of his meeting Thursday with senior journalists in Tel Aviv — an annual meet-the-press-type event — fielding questions about the recommendations by the Iraq Study Group, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. Would the group’s call for negotiations between Israel and Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, reshape U.S. policy in the Middle East, the journalists wanted to know.

The questions were spurred also by incoming U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ assertion this week that while he was not sure Iran would attack Israel with nuclear weapons, the United States could not assure Israel that a nuclear attack by Iran would not take place. “I don’t think anybody can provide that assurance,” he told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination.

During his confirmation, Gates also grabbed the attention of many in Jerusalem when he seemed to breach a decades-old U.S. policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” regarding Israel’s reported nuclear arsenal. Talking about what might be motivating Iran to acquire an atomic bomb, he said: “They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf.”

Insisting that during his White House meeting last month he had not detected any change in President Bush’s approach to the Middle East, Olmert tried to rebuff the Baker-Hamilton linkage between stabilising Iraq and unlocking the Arab-Israel conflict. “The attempt to create a linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue — we have a different view,” the Prime Minister said. “To the best of my knowledge, President Bush, throughout recent years, also had a different view on this.”

Olmert also rejected the recommendation that Israel engage Syria in negotiations and that in exchange for a full peace with Damascus, it agree to relinquish the Golan Heights, the strategic mountain range that Israel captured during the 1967 war. What interested him, he said, was not just what Syria wanted, but “what are the Syrians prepared to offer.”

In recent months, Syrian President Bashar Assad has called for talks with Israel. Opinion in Israel regarding his overtures is sharply divided: some experts believe Assad’s “peace” declarations are aimed at winning favour with the west in an attempt to extract himself from Bush’s “axis of evil” and so should be ignored; others argue that Olmert should take up his offer — even if it ultimately proves disingenous — with the purpose of trying to pry Damascus away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Olmert has sided with the skeptics. He told journalists it was unlikely that the incentive of real negotiations would spur a behaviourial change in Damascus, which backs the virulently anti-Israel Hezbollah and Hamas. “The way Syria is acting these days, especially its subversive action in Lebanon and its support for the extremist Hamasadoes not paint a picture of the possibility for talks in the near future,” he said.

“I can only say that the opinions I heard from the President and from all the senior administration staff on the Syrian issue are such that he did not see a feasability in talks on the American-Syrian track or on the Israeli-Syrian track,” he added.

While the Baker-Hamilton report called for the U.S. to engage Iran and Syria in an attempt to end the sectarian violence in Iraq, it suggests that the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme should be dealt with by the United Nations. Asked about Iran’s nuclear intentions, Olmert said his meeting with Bush last month had left him “less worried” than he had been beforehand.

The possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, he said, was not just an Israeli problem. “First and foremost it is an issue for the international community.” While he said every effort should be made to resolve the dispute by means of “negotiation” and “compromise,” he added Israel could not accept “the idea of Iran having a nuclear capability.”

Responding to the recommendation that he talk to the Palestinians with his trademark sarcasm, Olmert said that “even Jim Baker can’t compete with me” when it comes to trying to move the Palestinian track forward. He was prepared to do “many things,” he said, to restart talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “We will not miss any opportunity to create the atmosphere that will enable us to move toward negotiations,” he said.

Towards the end of the 90-minute, free-flowing but often adversarial exchanges between the Prime Minister and the large group of journalists, Olmert was asked why he was shooting down diplomatic initiatives and calls for talks, rather than embracing them. Why, he was asked, had he not explored new diplomatic paths after his plan for a major unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank was shattered by the war in Lebanon. His sarcastic response — which thinly masked his annoyance — seemed only to accentuate the Prime Minister’s agenda-less state.

And, as sanguine as he tried to sound about developments in Washington this week, Olmert will be wondering whether the Baker-Hamilton report and Gates’ remarks are evidence of a gnawing concern in Jerusalem: the inconclusive outcome of Israel’s month-long war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, some experts fear, has raised questions in Washington about the value of the Jewish state as a strategic asset to the U.S.

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