WASHINGTON (JTA) – Did Rep. Nancy Pelosi drop the ball in the Middle East? Was she fouled? Was there a ball at all?Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, earned White House vituperation unusual for its intensity in even these partisan times after delivering what she said was a peace message last week from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Syrian President Bashar Assad.”It was a non-statement, nonsensical statement and didn’t make any sense at all that she would suggest that those talks could go forward as long as the Syrians conducted themselves as a prime state sponsor of terror,” Vice President Dick Cheney told radio host Rush Limbaugh. “I think it is, in fact, bad behavior on her part. I wish she hadn’t done it.”The conservative Limbaugh chose not to challenge Cheney, but Pelosi (D-Calif.), had not suggested “that talks could go forward as long as the Syrians conducted themselves as a prime state sponsor of terror.”Immediately after their meeting, Pelosi told reporters that she had conveyed to Assad that ending his support for terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and no longer allowing insurgents to reach Iraq were necessary components in any resumption of relations.In a statement, the bipartisan delegation of six House members that traveled to the Middle East wrote that Syria must “stop supporting terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and must end any interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs. We emphasized to President Assad that peace with Israel is essential to a U.S.-Syria relationship. We conveyed to him Prime Minister’s Olmert’s overture for peace talks when Syria openly takes steps to stop supporting terrorism.”In fact, according to those present, the bulk of the meeting with Assad was taken up with the plight of Israeli soldiers missing in clashes with Hezbollah or from forays into Syria dating back to the 1960s.Pelosi presented Assad with duplicate dog tags of three soldiers missing from last summer: two nabbed by Hezbollah in the July 12 cross-border raid that launched the second Lebanon war, and one captured by Hamas-affiliated gunmen in a June 25 cross-border raid.”It went back to Eli Cohen’s bones,” said a participant, referring to the Israeli spy hanged by Syria in 1965. His widow and children have pressed for the return of his remains.Palestinian spokesmen said Saturday that a deal was close on the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the soldier captured by Hamas. It was unclear whether Pelosi’s entreaties had anything to do with the deal.Behind the heated rhetoric, however, there appeared to be a genuine breakdown in communication between Pelosi and Olmert. The question was who caused it.Some Pelosi statements on Assad prompted an almost immediate “clarification” from Olmert’s office. Pelosi had said, “We were very pleased with the reassurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process. He was ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel.Also, the “meeting with the president enabled us to communicate a message from Prime Minister Olmert that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks as well.”But in his meeting with Pelosi, Olmert’s statement said, the prime minister “emphasized that although Israel is interested in peace with Syria, that country continues to be part of the axis of evil and a force that encourages terror in the entire Middle East. In order to conduct serious and genuine peace negotiations, Syria must cease its support of terror, cease its sponsoring of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations, refrain from providing weapons to Hizbollah and bringing about the destabilizing of Lebanon, cease its support of terror in Iraq, and relinquish the strategic ties it is building with the extremist regime in Iran.”The clarification baffled the delegation, which included Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the Jewish chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), its Government Reform Committee chairman and also Jewish; Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), an Arab American who is chairman of the House Resources Committee; Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a freshman who is the first Muslim-American member of Congress; Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), a senior Republican; and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Rules Committee.”The speaker conveyed precisely what the prime minister and the acting president asked,” Lantos told JTA. That included the traditional Israeli caveat about Syrian backing for terrorism.Dalia Itzik, the Knesset speaker who is acting president, emphasized the plight of the captive soldiers.Delegation members suggested that after the meeting with Olmert, they were left wondering why Olmert was eager to convey such a routine message – that Israel would talk peace if Syria ended its backing for terrorism.The answer, Lantos said, suggested itself the morning after, when Israeli papers said Olmert was concerned that Assad was gearing up for a summer war based on the misconception that Israel was ready to attack in concert with a U.S. strike on Iran. Olmert had no such intentions.The leaks to the papers suggested that Olmert’s message was less one of new content than of timing. By conveying a peaceful message, Olmert wanted to make sure Assad understood that Israel was not in an aggressive posture.If that was the case, why did Olmert need to make a clarification, as Israelis were not speaking on the record. Lantos suggested there was pressure from the White House. “It’s obvious the White House is desperate to find some phony criticism of the speaker’s trip, even though it was a bipartisan trip,” said Lantos, a Holocaust survivor who is considered the Democrat closest to the pro-Israel lobby. “I have nothing but contempt and disdain for the attempt to undermine this trip.”The White House had no comment on the allegations by Lantos that it pressured Olmert to offer a clarification.Such backdoor statecraft between the White House and Olmert would not be unprecedented.Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked Olmert into a 48-hour cease-fire during the war with Hezbollah to allow humanitarian relief, but within hours Israeli planes were bombing again, to Rice’s surprise and anger. Olmert had received a call, apparently from Cheney’s office, telling him to ignore Rice.Olmert’s message seemed calibrated to cast Pelosi as a naive novice.”A number of Senate and House members who recently visited Damascus received the impression that despite the declarations of Bashar Assad, there is no change in the position of his country regarding a possible peace process with Israel,” it said. “What was communicated to the U.S. House speaker does not contain any change in the policies of Israel, as was communicated to other foreign leaders.”Democrats were appalled. Members of the delegation understood the fine line Olmert must walk between the two Israeli foreign policy imperatives that are clashing now for the first time: Never stray from a pro-Israel president’s foreign policy, and never turn away an Arab offer to talk peace.Still, Olmert’s abruptness and tone left the delegation feeling he was “clumsy,” one participant said.In his interview with Limbaugh, Cheney gloated over Olmert’s role.”Prime Minister Olmert immediately made it clear that she was not authorized to make any such offer to Bashar Assad,” he said. “Fortunately, I think the various parties involved recognize she doesn’t speak for the United States in those circumstances, she doesn’t represent the administration. The president is the one who conducts foreign policy, not the speaker of the House.”In fact, White House frustration might have to do with a foreign policy spinning out of its control.After the White House berated Pelosi for even daring to visit Assad, it was revealed that congressional Republican delegations were in Damascus at about the same time just as eager to relay the same message as the Pelosi team: Talking is better than not talking.”Dialogue is not a sign of weakness,” Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) told his hometown newspaper, the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, after he returned home. “It’s a sign of strength.”
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Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.
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