Olmert Rejects Talks With Syria, Says Conditions Are 'Not Ripe'

Olmert says conditions 'not ripe' for talks with Syria; PMO: Iraq study unlikely to shift U.S. line on Israel; bipartisan report calls for renewed U.S. role in Mideast peace.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday that conditions were not ripe to reopen talks with Syria, adding that he received no indications from U.S. President George W. Bush during his recent visit to Washington that the U.S. would push Israel to start such talks.

Olmert also rejected linkage of the Iraqi war with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the Iraq Study Group, a day after the bipartisan commission issued its comprehensive report on the Iraq War.

"The attempt to create linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue - we have a different view," Olmert told reporters in Tel Aviv, in his first response to the report issued Wednesday by the Iraq Study Group.

One of the major conclusions of the study group is that the United States is unable to achieve its goals in the Middle East without direct involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The bipartisan panel is recommending that talks involving Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians are held within a "Madrid Conference framework," referring to the 1991 summit convened by then U.S. president George H.W. Bush, in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, which triggered the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has called in recent months for a new round of talks with Israel, but Olmert has rejected them out of hand.

"The question of what Israel can offer Syria has been raised before. The question is, what can we get from the Syrians if [we] enter negotiations," the prime minister said.

He said, however, that Israel wants "with all our might" to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. He rejected suggestions that Israel's recent cease-fire with Palestinian militants in Gaza would simply allow the militants to rearm and regroup for another round of fighting, saying that Israel would not allow that to happen.

He said that despite occasional rocket attacks by Gaza militants at Israel, "we will continue to show restraint."

The prime minister also welcomed a peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia, saying it contains "interesting elements that should not be ignored."

Addressing the controversy over Iran's nuclear ambitions, Olmert reiterated Israel's position that it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, but will not take unilateral action, preferring that the dispute should be settled by the international community as a whole.

He also reiterated his support for the U.S. war in Iraq, a position that caused some controversy during his U.S. trip last month.

"We always felt, like other nations in our region, that the removal of Saddam Hussein was a major, major contribution to stability of our part of the world," he said.

Olmert's office said Wednesday that it is unlikely that Bush would alter his Middle East policy with regard to Israel, despite the recommendations of the bipartisan advisory panel, headed by former secretary of state James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton.

Sources at the Prime Minister's Office said Wednesday night that Olmert is not unduly concerned with the report because in his recent meeting with Bush at the White House, he was promised that the U.S. would not divert from the principles of its policy in dealing with terrorist groups and in countering the Iranian nuclear program.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, however, welcomed the U.S. commission's call for a comprehensive peace. "We welcome this report and we hope the U.S. administration will translate it into deeds. Our region needs peace and dialogue," Erekat said Thursday.

The committee presented its report to Bush on Wednesday, offering recommendations on policy regarding the quagmire in Iraq.

The main recommendations of the report deal with U.S. policy in Iraq, and call for shifting the primary role of American forces there from fighting to training the Iraqi military. The panel also recommends diminishing the number of American soldiers deployed in Iraq.

The report described the situation in Iraq as "dire" and "deteriorating."

In relation to Israel, the Baker-Hamilton panel is recommending talks along two main axes: Syria-Lebanon and the Palestinians.

The committee sets the conditions Damascus must fulfill to be considered an effective interlocutor, some of which are similar to those posed by the Bush administration to the Assad regime in exchange for dialogue.

The U.S. continues to demand that Syria avoid interference in Lebanon's domestic affairs; that it cooperate in the investigation of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri; that it cease all assistance to Hezbollah and undertake efforts to persuade Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist.

At the same time, the panel concludes that Israel must return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace treaty, and says that in exchange Israel will be granted security guarantees from the United States on this front.

Regarding the Palestinians, the Baker-Hamilton report concludes that talks on a final settlement should be held, so that a two-state solution in line with Bush's ideas can be achieved.

The committee also urged the Bush administration to give its full backing to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and to try and further talks on the creation of a Palestinian national unity government.

The panel briefly touched on the question of the Iranian nuclear program, and its main recommendation is that the issue should continue to be handled by the United Nations Security Council. It also suggests that efforts should be made to convince Iran to contribute to the stabilization of the situation in Iraq through regional support groups - which the Baker-Hamilton panel suggests should be set up.

Responding to the bipartisan panel's mention of Syria and talks with Israel, the official Syrian news agency, SANA, focused on the Golan Heights issue in its reports Wednesday.

The news agency highlighted the group's recommendation that the U.S. administration press Israel to restore the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace agreement.

Syria's Vice President Farouk al-Shara said Wednesday that Damascus is interested in a peace process that will restore the Golan Heights to Syria "all the way back to the lines of 4 June, 1967.

"A peace process that will not achieve this goal is unacceptable," the Syrian official said.

Al-Shara also said that both Iran and Syria should be involved in solving the crisis in Iraq, in response to the Baker-Hamilton report's recommendation that Tehran and Damascus should be engaged to contribute toward stabilizing Iraq.