WASHINGTON (Dec. 10)
Officials of the American and Israeli governments agree on two things: Iraq has nothing at all to do with Israeli-Arab issues. Except when it does.
From President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on down, the leaderships of the Israeli and American governments are simultaneously embracing and rebuffing last week’s conclusions of the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, which makes Israeli-Arab peace progress a linchpin of a successful outcome in Iraq.
The crux of their argument is that while it is wrong to blame the Israeli-Arab impasse for any part of the crisis in Iraq, actors in that crisis — chief among them Iran and its allies — are successfully using Israel as a justification for raising the stakes in Iraq.
“We do this not because we are persuaded by some linkage or another, but because it is in the U.S. national interest,” David Welch, the top U.S. State Department envoy to the Middle East, said Friday of U.S. involvement in Arab-Israeli peace when he addressed the Saban Forum, an annual colloquy of U.S. and Israeli leaders.
Another Bush administration official put it more bluntly: ” ‘Palestine’ is not a relevant issue to Iraq, but it is an issue exploited by Iran and extremists throughout the region,” the official told JTA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Arab-Israeli peace talks would have a “positive, emboldening effect,” the official said. “If progress among Israel and the Palestinians is manifested, then moderates throughout the region win and extremists lose.”
Conversely, the official said, “We believe that a success in Iraq, a success for moderates against forces of extremism, whether secular or religious, will have a very significant impact in the region, in Syria, in Lebanon, as well as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The Bush administration has welcomed Olmert’s recent overture to the Palestinians in which he promised a release of prisoners and increased mobility should a cease-fire hold and the Palestinians prove themselves able to present a negotiating team that renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel’s existence.
Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority president, has all but given up on such concessions from the Cabinet, led by the terrorist Hamas group, and has proposed new elections.
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, said at the Saban Forum that Israel and the West should encourage alternatives to the Hamas government, although she did not elaborate.
Bush launches a weeklong review of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations on Monday, starting with meetings with top State Department officials. Later in the week he meets with outside experts, top U.S. diplomats in the region and top military brass.
His primary concern about the report is its deadline for a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the first quarter of 2008. Bush has steadfastly resisted timetables until now.
But after meeting with Tony Blair, the British prime minister who is about to tour the region, Bush suggested that he embraced its Iraq-Israeli-Palestinian linkage, counting it as one of three ways to move the Iraq process forward.
“The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is important to be solved,” the president said.
That’s music to the ears of Blair and other Europeans, who enthusiastically welcomed the recommendations of the commission, headed by James Baker, secretary of state to Bush’s father, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.
“The German government shares many of the political observations in the report,” a statement from the German Embassy in Washington said last week on the eve of a visit here by the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “The entire Middle East region must move into the international community’s scope. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of central importance.”
Such views were hardly welcome at the Saban Forum, where the ISG’s report lent an anxious irritability to the weekend proceedings at Washington’s Ritz Carlton hotel. The Saban Center, a Brookings Institution subsidiary funded by American-Israeli entertainment mogul Haim Saban, attracts top names to its annual colloquies. Last year’s was in Jerusalem.
“The Iraqi conflict has very little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis,” Yuli Tamir, Israel’s education minister, told JTA during a break from the conference’s closed sessions. “I don’t think it’s relevant — it’s a good justification but not a reason.”
On Sunday, Olmert, who had earlier suggested that he disagrees with the report’s conclusions, ordered his Cabinet not to comment on it, saying it was an internal American affair.
Livni did not mention the Baker-Hamilton report by name, but its conclusions were clearly the focus of her keynote address at a gala State Department dinner last Friday night.
“There is a commonly mistaken assumption that I sometimes hear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core of the trouble of the Middle East, that somehow if this conflict could be resolved, so the situation could be different, and we can face a totally different region,” she said. “So, this is wrong. This view confuses symptom and cause. The truth is that the conflicts in the Middle East are a consequence, not a cause, of radicalism and terrorism.”
That may be the case, but Livni in the same speech was nonetheless preoccupied by how Iran would fare in the Iraq crisis — and what a success by its Shi’ite Muslim proteges in Iraq would bode for Israel and the region.
“The idea of spreading Shi’ism all over the region is a threat not only to Israel but the region itself,” she said, citing efforts this week by the Hezbollah terrorist group to topple Lebanon’s Western-leaning government.
Bush expressed wariness about the commission’s recommendations to engage Iran and Syria. He was adamant that those countries were out of bounds until they stopped backing terrorists.
If Syria and Iran are “not committed to that concept, then they shouldn’t bother to show up” to a regional conference on Iraq, he said after meeting with Blair.
Iran’s ambitions dominated much of the Saban Forum. Shimon Peres, the vice prime minister, spoke darkly of the possibility of war in a Saturday-night panel with former President Clinton.
“Iran’s strength derives from the weakness of the international community,” he said. “If there was an international coalition, there would be no need to go to war against Iran, and Iran would return to its natural dimensions.”
Israel backs U.S. and European efforts to sanction Iran until it gives up enriching uranium, a step toward manufacturing a nuclear weapon.
Peres described a range of options to prevent Iran’s nuclearization: monitoring its missiles with nuclear warhead capability; economic sanctions; limiting its oil production; and assisting regime change.