Thursday, December 07, 2006

Israel rejects US panel report recommendations on Mideast

by David Furst
Agence France Presse
Dec 7, 2006

Israel has rejected the conclusions of a high-level US panel report on Iraq, which urged Washington to step up efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"I see things differently," Olmert told reporters Thursday. "There are many people in the United States who see things differently and it appears to me that the current American administration sees things differently."

The report, presented to President George W. Bush on Wednesday, said resolving the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict was key to achieving Washington's regional goals in Iraq and the Middle East.

But Olmert rejected the link, saying US problems in Iraq "are entirely independent of the controversy between us and the Palestinians."

He also said that restarting peace talks with Syria, as recommended by the report, was unlikely in the near future.

"The fact that Syria attempts to destabilize the government in Lebanon and supports Hamas proves that there is little chance to try and embark on negotiations with this country in the near future," Olmert told reporters.

He declined to say whether he would be willing to return the strategic Golan Heights plateau to Syria in any peace deal.

The US panel said Israel should return the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, as part of a peace deal with Damascus that would halt Syrian support for radical Palestinian and Lebanese militants and end Syrian meddling in Lebanon.

It made a brief reference to the "right of return" -- Palestinian shorthand for demands that refugees who fled what was to become Israel in 1948 be allowed to return. That was in contrast to previous official terminology, which spoke of the need to address the issue of refugees as part of an overall peace deal.

And it recommended that Washington engage in direct talks with Israel's arch-foe Iran, whose president has repeatedly called for the Jewish state's destruction.

Israeli officials have sought to downplay the report's significance, saying it included only recommendations and that any change of policy would be up to Bush, who has so far not pressed Israel for concessions.

"The report does not reflect the position of the United States but simply one opinion in the US," Olmert said. "I trust President Bush; I trust his judgement."

Olmert said he would be willing to hold talks with Arab countries who support the 2002 Saudi peace initiative.

The plan, adopted by an Arab summit in the same year, offered a full normalization of ties with Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories captured in 1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian state and a just solution to the refugee problem.

"I will be happy to have contacts with these countries to reinforce the position of moderate elements who support a negotiated solution to the conflict instead of violent means," Olmert said.

Aides of the premier quoted in the Israeli press sought to downplay the significance of the US report.

"There is no cause for worry, even though this is certainly a very bad report from Israel's point of view," one Olmert aide told the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily.

"If Bush adopts the recommendations, it will be like an earthquake in the Middle East, but it is unlikely that this will happen."

But others warned that the Jewish state had to act to counter the findings.

"Israel will have to prepare for a completely different reality," Dore Gold, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, told the Ynet news site.

"Israeli diplomacy ... must now make a major effort to resist the attempts to 'Palestinianize' the situation in Iraq, with Israel being asked to pay for it," Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to Washington, wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

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