Israel backers say no need to worry as Iraq Study Group prepares report
By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON, Nov. 21 (JTA) - Headed by a man who once cursed out the Jews and beset by leaks suggesting accommodation of Israel's worst enemies, the study group on how to get U.S. troops out of Iraq has raised fears of new pressures on Israel.
Jewish and Israeli officials who have consulted with members of the Iraq Study Group say such fears are unwarranted, and that the group is mindful of Bush administration priorities in the region, including strong support for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government.
The Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, is to present its conclusions before year's end to the White House. Recent leaks from advisers drafting the recommendations anticipate recommendations that include engagement with Iran and Syria and pressure on Israel to accelerate peace with the Palestinians.
"It's hard to believe they would be that stupid, but it's not to be ruled out," said Joshua Muravchik, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "The idea that Iran, whose president says his goal is a world without America, would like to pull our chestnuts out of the fire in Iraq is loco. The second point, that they want to make solving Iraq contingent on solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, is equally loco. All this stuff that has come out seems to me to be pretty darn foolish."
The study group already has drawn plaudits from players Israel considers its most dangerous enemies.
"They understand the realities of the Middle East," Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to Washington, told JTA in an interview at his embassy. He has met with the study group three times.
The group was mandated by Congress but also welcomed by President Bush, who has maintained his father's deference to Baker's foreign policy experience.
It's that closeness, despite Bush's own unprecedented support for Israel, that has raised some concerns: As secretary of state in 1991, Baker pressured Israel to accommodate Palestinian demands; confronted by another Cabinet official with concerns that this would upset Jewish constituents, Baker said "F- the Jews."
One marker of a sea change was a New York Times interview last week in which Moustapha appeared to herald a new day ending his nation's isolation by the West.
"What would it take Syria to help on Iraq?" Moustapha quoted Baker as asking Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister.
It seemed an augur: Within days, Syria and Iraq had resumed relations, with U.S. blessing. Israel has looked to the United States to squeeze Syria through isolation, hoping it will bring about an end to Syria's support for Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists.
Other reports suggested that the study group would recommend greater engagement with Iran, which has considerable influence with the Shi'ite side of Iraq's civil war. That especially would be anathema to Israel, which is depending on the United States to isolate Iran until it agrees to stop enriching uranium, a step toward building a nuclear weapon.
A number of Jewish and Israeli professionals said not to read too much into Baker's past or into leaks from the study group: Its principal mission is to seek a way out of Iraq that accommodates Bush administration precepts, including a refusal to deal with terrorists or the nations that back them.
"All the indications are they are not going to put a great emphasis on Israel-centric issues," said one pro-Israel official, who has consulted with members of the group and who asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity.
Leaks suggesting pressure on Israel came from advisers to the group who were repeating their own advice to the media in an effort to game the process, the official said. There was no indication that Baker and Hamilton would adopt the advice.
Olmert met with Bush just after the president met with Baker and Hamilton. Later, the Israeli prime minister told Hebrew-speaking reporters that Bush proffered no link between Iraq and the fundaments of the Israel-U.S. relationship, especially on the need to contain Iran.
"I don't see any change in his approach to Iran," Olmert said.
Daniel Levy, a dovish Israeli activist at the Center for American Progress, said his understanding from those involved in the process was that Israel issues would be on the margins of the report, not its center.
"It will make a side reference to the Israel-Palestinian issue, and there's likely to be a reference to the Syria front," Levy said.
Much also would depend, he said, on whether the Palestinians had taken the necessary steps toward peacemaking, including earnestly renouncing terrorism and accepting Israel's right to exist.
Efforts by moderate Palestinians to bring about such changes stalled last week when Hamas rejected conditions for a new government of technocrats.
In fact, Middle Eastern realities already were overtaking whatever goodwill Baker and Hamilton may have stirred by reaching out to Syria in compiling the report. Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian Cabinet minister, was assassinated Tuesday, and Western leaders saw Syria's hand behind the attack.
"The United States remains fully committed to supporting Lebanon's independence and democracy in the face of attempts by Syria, Iran and their allies within Lebanon to foment instability and violence," Bush said in a statement.
David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Syria was playing a double game, demonstrating conciliation on the one hand and toughness on the other.
"They can demonstrate to the Baker-Hamilton people that they can go to Baghdad and be a useful player, and at the same time demonstrate zero give on Lebanon because it's something they covet," Makovsky said. "This is not the way to win friends and influence people."
Moustapha denied Syrian involvement in the Gemayel hit, but speaking to JTA on Tuesday, he backed away from the enthusiasm for renewed U.S.-Syrian friendship that he had displayed last week to the Times.
"We want to engage on Iraq not as part of a deal we were looking to conclude with the United States," he said. "We want to engage on Iraq because it serves our own national interests."
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