Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Thursday, December 7, 2006
Much of the bipartisan panel's report released on Wednesday dealt with the situation in Iraq, but it also said the U.S. could only achieve its Middle East aims if it dealt directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict - a proposition that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and experts here rejected.
The recommendations also call for the involvement of Iran and Syria - both considered terror-sponsoring states by the U.S. government - in attempts to calm the situation in Iraq.
The panel, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton, says Israel, Syria and Lebanon should hold "unconditional" peace talks.
Syria must stop trying to undermine the Lebanese government (Syria has never recognized Lebanon's sovereignty), cooperate with investigations into Lebanese political assassinations blamed on Syria, stop helping terrorist groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian areas, and seal its border with Iraq.
"In exchange for these actions and in the context of a full and secure peace agreement, the Israelis should return the Golan Heights, with a U.S. security guarantee," which could include an international force on the strategic plateau, the report says.
Yuval Steinitz, a Likud lawmaker who serves on the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that he expected the U.S. would not "dictate the end result of future negotiations" ahead of time.
"The Golan Heights is extremely vital to Israel's survivability in the long term," he told Cybercast News Service.
Before Israel captured the plateau during the 1967 Six-Day War, the Syrians used the Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee to fire at Israeli communities in the plain below.
Israel has been involved in negotiations with Syria on and off for years, but without resolution.
In 2000, President Clinton briefly tried to broker a deal between Israel and then Syrian President Hafez Assad. Talks broke down over the extent of the land to be returned to Syria.
While the country is divided over what to do about most of the territory controlled by Israel and claimed by the Arabs, there is broad consensus among Israelis that the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981, should not be surrendered.
Steinitz questioned why Israel should be expected to make concessions and be generous to Syria given the fact it had supplied the Hizballah terrorist organization with thousands of rockets launched from Lebanon at northern Israeli cities and towns over the summer.
He also accused Syria of trying to topple Lebanon's democratic government and noted that senior Syrian officials have been implicated in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and suspected of involvement in other assassinations.
Despite the difficulties facing the U.S. in Iraq, Steinitz said he expected that Washington would support Israel and Lebanon - "the good guys" who support democracy - against Hizballah and Syria - the "bad guys" who are terrorists and their supporters.
Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations, said there was "an inherent structural problem in the Baker report with respect to both Iran and Syria."
"Since 2003, both these countries have been the primary Middle Eastern actors responsible for increasing instability inside Iraq and making it difficult for the U.S. and its coalition partners to realize their military aims," Gold said in an interview.
"To get these two countries to now cooperate with the United States after all these years and assume a responsible role in limiting the chaos in Iraq involves getting them to shift their policies 180 degrees," he added.
Gold said because the report called for the U.S. to approach Iran and Syria and indicated that there would not be a victory in Iraq, the two regimes would see America as a country that is trying to manage its defeat.
"Therefore the price they will demand of the United States for cooperation will be extremely high ..." Gold said.
He said Iran would likely only agree to help the U.S. withdraw in return for U.S. acceptance of a nuclear-capable Iran - "a disaster not just for Israel but for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and every pro-Western government in the Middle East."
A senior Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the ISG's interests were confined to getting the president out of trouble in Iraq rather than looking at the broader picture of what lies behind the problems in the Middle East.
The report sought ways to "placate" Iran and Syria, and Israel was concerned this would happen at its expense.
If the U.S. believed Iran would help, it was "very much mistaken," he said.
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