Israeli political and defense officials are ignoring the preparations to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, even though such a move is expected to have major strategic ramifications for Israel, said senior officials in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Formulating an exit strategy is a top priority for U.S. foreign policy, and the issue will become still more important after the congressional elections in the United States next week.
President George W. Bush is waiting for a report on American policy in Iraq and the Mideast that is being prepared by a commission chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.
However, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has yet to convene a meeting to discuss the ramifications of an American pullout, although it was mentioned on the sidelines of a separate discussion. "As far as we know," said an official from the Prime Minister's Office, "it is not about to happen soon."
Olmert is slated to meet with Bush in the White House on November 13, but PMO sources said they didn't think the two leaders would discuss Iraq. They are expected to focus on other problems in the region, primarily the Iranian nuclear threat and the crisis in the Palestinian Authority.
The National Security Council has begun examining various aspects of an American withdrawal from Iraq, but has yet to present Olmert with its conclusions and recommendations.
An examination of the public comments of Israeli leaders shows that they have not been paying attention to developments in Iraq. Over the past two weeks, Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz gave policy speeches in which they addressed Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, but not Iraq - as though events there bear no relevance to Israel.
"I am very fearful," said a senior official in Jerusalem. "The American withdrawal from Iraq will have a very severe impact on us, unless developments take place that are not currently visible on the ground."
The official said the pullout could lead to two negative outcomes for Israel - the emergence of a terrorist entity with ties to Iran, and American hesitation to send troops to the Middle East.
"They'll return to splendid isolation, like after the trauma of Vietnam," he said.
Meanwhile, Bush administration envoys David Welch and Elliott Abrams arrived in the region Wednesday to prepare for the Olmert-Bush meeting. They met with Olmert's advisers and are due to meet with Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni Friday.
Olmert is to meet Thursday with John Negroponte, the U.S. director of national intelligence, who is on his first trip to the region as a guest of Mossad director Meir Dagan. Negroponte's discussions with Israeli officials are expected to focus on combating the Iranian nuclear threat.
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