Jerusalem — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drew public objections from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week, after she reportedly relayed a message to Damascus that Jerusalem was ready to open peace talks with Syria.
Pelosi was reported to have delivered the message Wednesday during her meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which followed discussions that she held in Israel with Olmert. After her meeting with Assad, Pelosi announced that the Syrian president is ready to talk peace with Israel.
The Forward learned from an Israeli source that in Pelosi’s meetings with Israeli officials, the House speaker was told that Jerusalem was open to any peace overture from Damascus but Syria must first end support for terrorism. On Thursday, the Israeli press quoted sources close to the prime minister saying that Pelosi “chose to use only part of the message” that Olmert had conveyed to her.
Shortly after Pelosi’s meeting with Assad, Olmert’s office issued a statement challenging her reported message to the Syrian president.
“What was discussed with the House speaker did not include any change in Israel’s policy, as it has been presented to international parties involved in the matter,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in the statement.
“We came in friendship, hope and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi said after her meeting with the Syrian leader in Damascus. She did, however, stress that her delegation voiced concerns to Assad over Syria’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
Pelosi’s delegation included two influential Jewish Democrats, Tom Lantos and Henry Waxman of California, and the country’s first Muslim congressman, Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Pelosi was also joined by two other Democratic House members, Nick Rahall of West Virginia and Louise Slaughter of New York, and one Republican, David Hobson of Ohio.
The objections from Olmert’s office follow a clash between Pelosi and the White House over whether it was appropriate for the speaker to meet with Assad. The Bush administration argued that the meeting would undermine its strategy of isolating Syria in an effort to pressure Damascus to stop harboring terror groups, cut its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and block the flow of anti-American fighters into Iraq through the Syrian border. Talking to reporters, President Bush called Pelosi’s mission to Syria “counterproductive” because “sending delegations doesn’t work.” Bush said that Pelosi’s meeting with Assad would send a mixed message regarding American policy on Syria.
Pelosi rejected the White House’s criticism, saying that her visit to Damascus was important and that there is a need for a dialogue between the two countries. Pelosi is the highest-ranking American official to conduct talks with the Syrian government since February 2005, when the Bush administration called back the U.S. ambassador to Damascus and named Syria one of the destabilizing forces in the region.
The House speaker suggested that the attack against her was politically motivated, since the Bush administration did not object to a similar visit to Syria last week by a delegation of Republican lawmakers. Other observers noted that prior to the recent objections from Jerusalem, Israeli officials seemed quite eager to use Pelosi as a messenger. According to a report in Ha’aretz, the key message that Olmert was hoping for Pelosi to convey was that Israel has no plans to attack Syria. Israeli officials reportedly are worried that Assad, after incorrectly concluding that Jerusalem is planning a strike against his country, will launch an attack against Israel.
The flap this week between Pelosi and Olmert’s aides comes on the heels of a public disagreement over America’s military presence in Iraq. Last month, at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Olmert told thousands of Aipac activists that a premature withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would harm Israel’s security. The next day, in a speech to the same audience, Pelosi touted efforts by Democratic lawmakers to set a strict deadline for pulling American troops out of Iraq. Pelosi’s remarks drew scattered boos from the crowd.
According to Israeli sources, the issue of Iraq was not discussed between Pelosi and Olmert when the two met in Jerusalem this week. Jewish organizations consider Pelosi a close friend and a strong supporter of Israel. At the same time, several influential Jewish organizations have backed calls from Washington and Jerusalem to avoid engagement with Assad before Syria moves to end its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. Dovish Jewish groups have echoed the calls for Damascus to end its support of terrorist organizations, but they are also urging Israel and the United States to respond to Syrian calls for negotiations.
In recent months, Olmert’s government has rejected several direct and indirect calls by Syria to open peace talks. Israeli officials have said that one of the considerations in turning down the Syrian offers was the concern of defying the Bush administration’s push to isolate the Assad regime.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.