Ed O’Loughlin, Jerusalem
December 9, 2006
THE Iraq Study Group’s call for comprehensive peace talks between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians has stirred opposition in Israel, where the chance of the White House accepting the proposal is seen as slight.
Briefing journalists after the group released its long-awaited report this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said recent talks with US President George Bush and others led him to believe there would be no change to US opposition to talks with the present Palestinian and Syrian administrations.
He rejected the report’s linking of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict to growing extremism in the Middle East and the insurgency in Iraq.
And he said the time was “not ripe” for renewed talks with Syria.
Israeli policy in recent years has sought to avoid an externally imposed settlement of the Palestinian conflict and to reject any link between that conflict and wider regional issues.
Chief among these are Syria’s demand that Israel return the Golan Heights territory that it seized in 1967, a demand that Damascus has backed up by sponsoring anti-Israeli forces in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Officially, the Israeli Government has refused to comment on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, which the Foreign Ministry said was an internal US matter. Mr Olmert said its implementation was “up to the President, and I have great confidence in his judgement”. But Israeli media quoted senior “political sources” describing it as “certainly a very bad report from Israel’s point of view”.
But dislike of the report’s call for a new Middle East peace process is tempered in Israel by the belief that it is unlikely to be implemented. Mr Bush has already signalled his unwillingness to talk to Syria, which he has branded part of an “axis of evil”, or to the present Islamic fundamentalist Palestinian Authority Government.
Although Mr Bush is under massive pressure from the incoming Democrat-led Congress to switch policy in Iraq, it is unlikely to include pressure for a change of policy on Israel, which enjoys the strong support of most US legislators.
Of almost as much concern to the Israeli media this week was a statement by US defence secretary-designate Robert Gates acknowledging for the first time that Israel possesses nuclear weapons.
During his confirmation hearing before the US Senate, Mr Gates referred to Iran as being “surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf”.
Until now US officials have accepted Israel’s refusal to confirm or deny its possession of a nuclear arsenal, leading to widespread accusations of hypocrisy, particularly in the Middle East.