Thursday, April 05, 2007

Israel denies Pelosi peace message to Damascus

PELOOPSI AS PELOSI SYRIASLY BUNGLES MISSION By IAN BISHOP New York Post Correspondent BLABBING WITH BASHAR: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sits down yesterday with Bashar Assad in a meeting where she wrongly conveyed an Israeli offer for peace talks. April 5, 2007 -- WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday met with Syrian dictator and terror sponsor Bashar Assad - drawing an immediate slap from the White House for rewarding his "bad behavior." And, to make matters worse, she botched a peace message she carried from Israel. Vice President Dick Cheney was livid, saying Assad has "been isolated and cut off because of his bad behavior. And the unfortunate thing about the speaker's visit is, it sort of breaks down that barrier." "It means that without him having done any of those things he should do . . . he gets a visit from a high-ranking American anyway. In other words, his bad behavior is being rewarded," Cheney told ABC News Radio. Pelosi brought a message from Israel to Assad - but bungled the diplomatic overture, forcing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office to issue a statement correcting the House speaker. "[Our] meeting with the president enabled us to communicate a message from Prime Minister Olmert that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks as well," Pelosi told reporters after meeting Assad in Damascus. But an Israeli government official took the unusual step of saying afterward that was not the message Olmert had asked Pelosi earlier this week to convey to Assad, who seeks the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. "The prime minister said Israel is interested in peace with Syria, but Syria would first have to abandon the path of terror and providing support for terrorist groups," the Israeli official said in attempting to fix Pelosi's screw-up. "Comments [Olmert] made to the speaker of the House did not represent any change in a policy Israel has expressed to all international figures dealing with the [Syrian] issue," a statement from Olmert's office said. The issue of conditions surrounding any future peace talks between Israel and Syria has been a major sticking point, and it has stalled negotiations. Syria insists there should be no conditions and everything's on the table, while the Israel government maintains a long-standing policy of not talking with Syria while it continues to actively back enemies of the Jewish state. Pelosi also said she and her congressional colleagues along for the trip, including Rochester Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, "expressed our concern about Syria's connections to Hezbollah and Hamas" and discussed the issue of militant fighters slipping across the Syrian border into Iraq. "These are important issues not only in the fight against terrorism, but important priorities for us for peace in the Middle East," she said. After brushing aside pleas that she scuttle the trip, Pelosi held three rounds of talks with high-ranking Syrian officials, including a powwow with Assad at the presidential palace. The White House says Syria is fueling violence in Iraq by allowing Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory, while also backing the Hezbollah and Hamas terror groups and trying to destabilize the Lebanese government. Experts say Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad all have headquarters in Damascus, and that the country is awash in terror money. Assad's embrace of Hamas and Hezbollah didn't stop Pelosi from carrying an olive branch to him. During their summit, Pelosi sat to Assad's right in a deep wooden chair as they chatted over a barren circular table. Assad also joined Pelosi at a palace window to point out Damascus landmarks. "We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace," Pelosi (D-Calif.) said afterward. That brought a sharp attack from the Bush administration, which has rejected direct talks with Damascus until its changes its ways. "Unfortunately, that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for President Bush's National Security Council. "It's unfortunate that she took this unilateral trip, which we only see as counterproductive." The state-run Sana news agency said Pelosi espoused "positive impressions" of Syria, while Assad said her visit "conveys a clear message that dialogue and peace are common languages among nations. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was in Pelosi's delegation, said the meeting "reinforced sharply" the potential benefits of talking to Syria. "This is only the beginning of our constructive dialogue with Syria, and we hope to build on this visit," he told reporters. In addition to meeting with Assad, Pelosi also met with Vice President Farouk Shara and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem - who defended Pelosi from the White House criticism. "Everyone knows there are different point of view between Syria and the United States," he said. "We are happy that Mrs. Pelosi and her delegation had the courage and determination to bridge these differences." Republicans at home lashed out at Pelosi for mounting her own rogue diplomatic mission - a foray they say undercuts official U.S. diplomatic efforts to isolate Assad until he quashes terrorism in his country. "I think Condoleezza Rice's job is hard enough without sending mixed messages overseas," Mayor Bloomberg said. "We are like a family. We can disagreements, but they're internal to us. And we should speak with one voice in this world. That's what democracy is all about and I think we should leave diplomacy to the diplomats." From the campaign trail in Iowa, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney slammed Pelosi's diplomatic excursion. "I just don't know what got into her head, to be completely honest with you," he said. "Her going to a state which is, without question, a sponsor of terror, and having her picture taken with Assad and being seen in a head scarf and so forth is sending the wrong signal to the people of Syria and to the people of the Middle East. Brian Darling, a congressional analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said, "Our president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, we are at war in Iraq, and if the speaker or other members are meeting with a nation that may be supporting our opponents in the war, that is inappropriate. "It is Condoleezza Rice's job to be our secretary of state and head diplomat, not the speaker of the House." Relations between the United States and Syria fell apart in 2005 when the State Department withdrew the U.S. ambassador to Damascus to protest the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus was blamed, but denied involvement.

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