PM: Conditions Not Ripe for Talks With Syria

Israel is opposed to "any effort to draw a connection or link between the issue of Iraq and the issue of the Middle East," and believes President George W. Bush also holds a similar view, said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday following the release of the Iraq Study Group report in the United States.

The report states that the U.S. is unable to achieve its goals in the Middle East without dealing directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the regional instability. The authors of the report, former secretary of state James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton, recommended that peace talks along the lines of the Madrid Conference of 1991 be held with the participation of Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

Addressing a gathering of news editors and producers in Tel Aviv yesterday, Olmert said the decision on whether to accept the recommendations of the bipartisan report "is up to the [U.S.] president, and I have great confidence in his judgment, his sense of responsibility and the leadership that he is exhibiting."

Upon receipt of the report yesterday, Bush was quoted as saying, "we will certainly not agree with every recommendation."

Regarding the report's recommendation that talks be initiated with Syria, Olmert said, "the views I heard expressed by the president and from all the other members of the administration regarding the Syrian issue in the past few days ... is that there are no preparations for possible negotiations - not American-Syrian and not Israeli-Syrian."

In his speech, Olmert made it clear that he does not believe the conditions are ripe for negotiations with Syria.

However, in Syria, the Baker-Hamilton report was well received by officials who said it offered a positive outlook on the role of countries bordering Iraq to restore calm there. Official Syrian sources also said that Damascus sees the restoration of the Golan Heights to Syria as the primary goal of negotiations and described the report's call for peace in the region as "objective."

An Israeli political source criticized the report for not mentioning the Saudi peace initiative that was passed in a 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut; Olmert looks upon it favorably as something with the basis to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Saeb Erekat, a senior adviser to the PA chairman, welcomed the report's call for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and said, "we hope the U.S. administration will translate the report into actions. Our region needs peace and dialogue."

Meanwhile, Congress yesterday passed a bill against Hamas, which will go into effect when the president signs it into law.

The bill was confirmed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, and bans any contact between the U.S. and a Hamas government, unless the latter meets the preconditions put forth by the international Quartet (to recognize Israel, to give up violence and accept past Israel-PLO accords).

The American Israel Public Affair Committee, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, which pressed for the passing of the bill, expressed satisfaction with the progress.