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As Washington Studies Iraq Report, Jerusalem Frets Over Tehran Talk

While the release of the long-awaited Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq policy has produced an outpouring of protest from Jewish groups opposing its calls for talks with Iran, Syria and the Palestinians, insiders say that the real target of Israel’s anxiety is neither Syria nor the Palestinians, but Iran and its nuclear program.

Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly expressed guarded willingness to engage Damascus. While Olmert’s gesture was hedged with conditions, a government adviser told the Forward this week that Jerusalem was in fact open to holding discussions with Syria, but was constrained by the Bush administration’s flat opposition to any dealings with the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

As for a new opening toward the Palestinians, Olmert recently declared his willingness to move in that direction, even softening his terms for a renewal of diplomacy. Jerusalem is unhappy seeing any linkage between America’s problems in Iraq and Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians, viewing such linkage as a form of pressure on Israel to move faster than it might choose. At the same time, Israel seeks progress for its own reasons.

On the Iranian front, however, Jerusalem is deeply fearful, seeing any U.S. appeal for Iranian help in Iraq as implying a quid pro quo that can only be damaging to Israel’s essential interests.

The administration is currently reviewing its options in Iraq and in the region following the December 6 release of the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The report calls for direct engagement with Syria and Iran in order to secure their help in stabilizing Iraq. It also calls for a sustained effort to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as a key to improving the atmosphere in the region and easing the way for moderate Arab regimes to cooperate with Washington.

Bush has indicated an unwillingness to pursue the recommendations on engaging Iran and Syria unless Tehran verifiably abandons its nuclear ambitions and Damascus stops destabilizing Lebanon and halts support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

In a December 12 interview with Agence-France Presse, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice openly rejected the study group’s appeal to deal directly with Damascus and Tehran in order to end the crisis in Iraq.

Moreover, administration officials who have briefed Jewish community officials in recent days have indicated that the president rejects the report’s linkage of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

James Baker, the Republican stalwart who co-chaired the study group, said after the report’s release that Syrian officials had indicated to the commission that they would be willing to meet two key American and Israel demands: to decrease their support for Hezbollah and to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“Talking to Syria gives us an excellent opportunity to revitalize the Arab-Israeli peace process,” Baker said. “The Syrians are the transit point for arms shipments to Hezbollah, and if you can flip the Syrians, you will cure Israel’s Hezbollah problem…. The Syrians will tell you, as they told us, that they do have the ability to convince Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist…. If we accomplished that, that would give Ehud Olmert a negotiating partner on the Palestinian track.”

Just hours after the report was released last week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee issued a press release warning against unconditional talks with Iran and Syria. “While engagement can be a useful diplomatic tool, both Iran and Syria have used past talks with the United States and Europeans as a time-buying exercise to continue their destructive policies and stave off serious consequences,” Aipac said.

Israeli officials dismissed the report’s assertion that solving the crisis in Iraq implied a renewed effort on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

But the real concern of Israeli policymakers, several knowledgeable sources argued, is Iran. Israel and its allies have been extremely active in recent weeks, depicting Iran as a global threat. The latest round of protests was sparked by this week’s international Holocaust conference in Tehran, a gathering of Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis from around the world.

Behind the rhetoric, Jerusalem worries that Washington will ease its pressure on Tehran to suspend nuclear enrichment in exchange for Iranian help in stabilizing Iraq.

Israeli concerns are compounded by the fact that talk of military action against Tehran has receded in recent months, even as negotiations over U.N. sanctions against Iran remain stalled, leaving Iran in an increasingly strong bargaining position over the nuclear issue. In his confirmation hearings last week, incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that a military option against Iran should be an “absolute last resort.”

“I think that the consequences of a conflict — a military conflict with Iran — could be quite dramatic,” Gates told the senators. “And therefore, I would counsel against military action, except as a last resort and if we felt that our vital interests were threatened.” Gates pointed to Iran’s ability to cut oil supplies, launch terror attacks worldwide and fuel more chaos in Iraq and in Lebanon.

Gates also referred to Israel as a nuclear power, the first American official to do so publicly, fueling concerns in some pro-Israel circles that he was laying groundwork for a new form of pressure on Israel, perhaps involving a trade of Israel’s nukes for Iran’s.

In contrast to its fears on the Iran front, Jerusalem has made several noteworthy gestures towards the Palestinians and the Syrians in recent days. The moves toward the Palestinians are at least partly in anticipation of increased U.S. pressure to show progress. On the Syrian front, by contrast, the moves come, despite U.S. wishes, in hopes of separating Damascus from Tehran.

Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel has been one of the main stumbling blocks preventing the formation of a Palestinian national unity government over the past months. The Fatah party of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas takes the position that it will not join a government that cannot negotiate peace with Israel. Israel’s position has been that it will not talk to a Palestinian unity government in which Hamas plays a major role unless Hamas itself recognizes Israel. In recent days, however, Israel has shifted its stance, with spokesmen now saying it could deal with a Palestinian unity government that recognizes Israel, implying that the individual components of that government can have different policies.

On Syria, Olmert took a step toward lowering tensions this week, saying in a German television interview that he did not see a war looming in the coming months. His statement appeared to bolster the view of Israel’s military intelligence branch over that of the Northern Command, which has warned of a military buildup that could lead to open warfare by next summer.

Assad has offered on several occasions in recent years to open a dialogue with Israel over the Golan Heights, proclaiming that Syria — in sharp contrast to Iran — is willing to make peace with Israel. Up to now Assad has been rebuffed by Jerusalem, with the support of Washington, out of the belief that the Syrian regime was weak and isolated following its forced withdrawal from Lebanon last year. However, the continuing chaos in Iraq, the inconclusive war in Lebanon and the stalemate with Hamas have changed the equation in recent months and prompted a growing chorus of Israeli and American officials and pundits to advocate a more positive response to Damascus’s overtures.

Olmert, however, reiterated to reporters in Germany this week that Syria first had to cease its support for Hamas and Hezbollah before any serious talks could start.

An adviser to Israel’s intelligence services, speaking to the Forward this week, said that the hedging was partly a result of Washington’s opposition to such discussions until now.

With reporting by Nathan Guttman in Washington.

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