December 14, 2006
U.S., Israeli officials see conflicting Iraq study ideas
American and Israeli government officials 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 leadership of the Israeli and U.S. 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 said, 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 launched 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 was to have met 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. However, after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is scheduled to tour the region, Bush suggested that he embraces the report's 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. They enthusiastically welcomed the recommendations of the commission headed by James Baker, secretary of state for Bush's father, and Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana Democratic congressman.
"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 U.S. visit by 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 Iraq Study Group's report lent an anxious irritability to the weekend proceedings. 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, said 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.
"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," Livni 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."
Nevertheless, in the same speech Livni was preoccupied by how Iran would fare in the Iraq crisis -- and what a success by its Shiite Muslim protégés in Iraq would bode for Israel and the region.
"The idea of spreading Shiism all over the region is a threat not only to Israel but the region itself," she said, citing efforts 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 are out of bounds until they stop 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. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres spoke darkly of the possibility of war in a Saturday panel with former President Bill Clinton.
"Iran's strength derives from the weakness of the international community," Peres 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.