For Pro-israel Crowd, Iraq Report Has Some Unwelcome Proposals

The Iraq Study Group’s near-term recommendations for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict — international conferences, dealings with Syria and Iran — already are raising hackles in some pro-Israel quarters. Long-term expectations could be even more problematic.

The report from the blue-ribbon panel, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, was presented Wednesday. It mostly hews to the Bush administration principle of making an end to hostility toward Israel a prerequisite for improved relations with the United States: The Palestinians and Syrians first must demonstrate good faith through ending terrorism and recognizing the Jewish state before they can repair relations with Washington.

Baker, Hamilton and the eight other commissioners go further than the Bush administration, however, in describing the payoff for such good behavior: a return to the U.N.-conceived “land-for-peace” formulations of previous administrations in dealings with the Palestinians, and an Israeli handover of the Golan Heights to Syria.

On the Palestinian issue, the report recommends “adherence to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and to the principle of land-for-peace, which are the only bases for achieving peace.”

Israel and the Bush administration are committed to 242 and 338, which date back to the period just after Israel captured the West Bank and Golan Heights in 1967. However, making these resolutions the “only” bases for achieving peace could be interpreted as negating the signal Israeli accomplishment of recent years: the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush that recognized some Israeli West Bank settlements as facts on the ground.

On Syria, the commission recommends that “the Israelis should return the Golan Heights, with a U.S. security guarantee for Israel that could include an international force on the border, including U.S. troops if requested by both parties.”

That represents a considerable shift for Israel, primarily by announcing Syria’s payoff if it makes peace. Israel has not come out so explicitly, preferring to say it will match the depth of its concessions to the depth of peace Syria offers.

Additionally, the recommendation ignores a question that dogged previous negotiations with Syria: whether the Golan includes a slice of the Sea of Galilee. Israel insists it does not, arguing that Syria took the seashore by force in the 1948 war.

The recommendation also would scuttle Israel’s principle accomplishment in earlier negotiations, which stuttered throughout the 1990s: getting the Syrians close to agreeing to demilitarize a chunk of land beyond the Golan, effectively nullifying the mountain range’s height advantage. A small force policing the border would be considered a poor substitute for the strategic advantage of demilitarization.

President Bush is not obliged to heed the advice of the congressionally mandated commission, and is suggesting he will approach it piecemeal.

“There’s some very good ideas in there,” Bush said. “Not all of us around the table agree with every idea, but we do agree that it shows that bipartisan consensus on important issues is possible.”

Hours after the report’s release, the White House ruled out bilateral talks with Iran.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington would not comment on the report. Some of Israel’s friends, however, were not so circumspect.

The American Jewish Committee questioned the substance of recommending talks between Israelis and moderate Palestinians when Hamas, a terrorist group that denies Israel’s existence, heads the Palestinian Authority.

“The report does not explain what purpose will be served by negotiations between Israel and those Palestinians who, while presumably moderate, do not actually have the power to make and carry out agreements,” the group said in a statement.

Additionally, the AJCommittee said, calling on Syria to press Hamas into recognizing Israel was “ingenuous” when what was needed was an agreement to shut out the group.

“If Syria chooses to seek the path of peace with Israel, it can demonstrate that policy shift by shutting down the Hamas headquarters in Damascus and the rest of the terrorist infrastructure supported by the Assad regime,” it said.

Also troubling for some groups was the study group’s preference for international conferences of the kind Baker foisted on Israel when he worked for the first President Bush, and its recommendation that engagement with Iran on Iraq ignore parallel efforts to get Iran to give up its nuclear program.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee did not formally comment on the report, but sent out cautionary backgrounders on previous efforts to engage Iran.

“Iran has rebuffed previous U.S. efforts to engage its leadership and has exploited negotiations over its nuclear program to continue its weapons pursuit,” AIPAC said in one e-mail, headlined “Proceed with Caution if Engaging Iran and Syria.”

Dovish pro-Israel groups welcomed the report for its embrace of greater engagement, long one of their pleas to the Bush administration.

“There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace,” said the Israel Policy Forum, echoing similar comments by groups such as Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek ve’Shalom. “Sustained American diplomatic engagement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy even without a war in Iraq.”

Democrats dealt mostly with the report’s recommendations on removing combat troops from Iraq by early 2008. Among leaders of the incoming Congress, only Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), likely to head the U.S. House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee, addressed the Israeli-Arab component, and not favorably.

“There is no basis to conclude that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem is central to resolving Iraq,” he said in a statement. “These two issues, both difficult to resolve, must not be artificially conflated. The status of the Palestinians does not prompt Shi’ites and Sunnis to engage in reciprocal mass assassinations in Iraq. There are many sound reasons to encourage serious efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestinian problem. Iraq is not one of them.”

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