Olmert rejects link between Iraq, Israel’s conflicts with Palestinians, Syrians

TEL AVIV (AP) — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday rejected a US advisory group’s conclusions that Israel must talk to Syria and solve its conflict with the Palestinians to help the Bush administration stabilise Iraq.

Syria is not about to stop supporting Mideast extremists and Iraq is not linked to the Israel-Palestinian issue, he said. Still, Olmert insisted Israelis want to restart peace talks with the Palestinians “with all our might.” “I don’t think even James Baker can compete with me on efforts to launch negotiations,” the Israeli leader said. Baker, a former US Secretary of State, and Lee Hamilton, a former congressman, headed the so-called Iraq Study Group, which issued a report Wednesday outlining ways to wind down the war in Iraq and calling for direct talks between Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

The report amounted to an extraordinary indictment of US Mideast policy, portraying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a key element of failed efforts to achieve stability and rein in extremism in the region.

“The attempt to create a linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue — we have a different view,” Olmert said during the prime minister’s annual meeting with Israeli journalists. “To the best of my knowledge, President [George W.] Bush, throughout the recent years, also had a different view on this.”

As secretary of state in 1991, Baker coaxed Israel and its Arab neighbours to attend a regional peace conference in Madrid, Spain. Two years later, after Baker left office, Israel reached a historic interim peace deal with the Palestinians. However, peacemaking badly foundered in subsequent years, and consecutive Israeli governments have rejected efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a broader regional peace deal, as Baker favoured.

Answering reporters’ questions for more than an hour, Olmert said conditions were not ripe to reopen long-dormant talks with Syria and added that he received no indications from Bush during his recent visit to Washington that the US would push Israel to start such talks.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has called in recent months for a new round of talks with Israel. Syria is a key backer of the Palestinian Hamas and Hizbollah, the Lebanese group that battled Israel during an inconclusive monthlong war last summer.

But Olmert said Syria’s attempts to subvert Lebanon’s government and support for Hamas “doesn’t create the conditions for negotiations with the Syrians in the near future.” He said Israel and the West have been trying for years to separate Syria from Mideast radicals “to no avail.” White House officials were noncommittal about the Iraq Study Group’s report, saying only that Bush would review it.

Palestinian officials were more receptive.

“We welcome the Hamilton-Baker report and hope the US administration will translate it into deeds,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “The region needs peace, the region needs dialogue and we have always stuck to dialogue towards a comprehensive peace.” Olmert said that Israel was deeply interested in restarting talks with the Palestinians, saying “we won’t miss any opportunity to create a climate that would promote prospects for negotiations, with all the problems involved.” Though Olmert did not specify which problems, they undoubtedly include the fact that the Palestinian government is now headed by Hamas following elections nearly a year ago.

The prime minister also welcomed a peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia, saying it contains “interesting innovations that should not be ignored.” However, he did not fully endorse the plan, first floated in 2002, which called for Israel to withdraw from all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Olmert also rejected suggestions that Israel’s recent ceasefire with Palestinian fighters in Gaza would allow the fighters 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 fighters at Israel, “we will continue to show restraint.” Olmert also addressed the controversy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, reiterating Israel’s position that it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, but will not take unilateral action, preferring to settle the issue in conjunction with the international community.

He also reiterated his support for US policies in Iraq, a position that caused some controversy during his US 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 in our part of the world,” he said.

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