Pelosi Delivered Wrong Message to Assad, Israel Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

(1st Add: Includes comments from Israeli and Syrian officials.)

Jerusalem ( - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered the wrong message to Syrian President Bashar Assad from Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said on Wednesday evening.

Pelosi, who is heading a bi-partisan fact-finding tour of the Middle East, met with Assad on Wednesday, a move that angered the Bush administration. Earlier in the week, Pelosi -- the most senior U.S. official to visit Syria in years -- visited Israel and met with Olmert.

At a press conference following the meeting between Pelosi and Assad in Damascus, Pelosi indicated that she had delivered a message that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks.

"We were very pleased with the reassurances we received from the president [Assad] that he was ready to resume the peace process. He was ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel," Pelosi said.

The meeting with Assad "enabled us to communicate a message from Prime Minister Olmert that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks as well," she said.

But the prime minister's office denied that Olmert had asked her to communicate such a message in a "clarification" statement issued on Wednesday evening.

During the meeting between Pelosi and Olmert, the prime minister said that a number of members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives had visited Damascus recently and had "received the impression that despite the declarations of Bashar Assad, there is no change in the position of his country regarding a possible peace process with Israel."

Since the end of the summer war between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon, Syria has made a number of overtures toward Israel, but Israel has rejected them, saying that Syria isn't serious about making peace. The last official peace talks between the two countries were in early 2000.

Olmert emphasized that although Israel is interested in peace with Syria, "that country continues to be part of the axis of evil and a force that encourages terror in the entire Middle East," the clarification statement said.

"In order to conduct serious and genuine peace negotiations, Syria must cease its support of terror, cease its sponsoring of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations, refrain from providing weapons to Hizballah and bringing about the destabilizing of Lebanon, cease its support of terror in Iraq, and relinquish the strategic ties it is building with the extremist regime in Iran," it said.

Whether or not Syria implements these measures will determine if Syria is sincere about making genuine peace with Israel, Olmert said.

The communication with Pelosi did not contain any change in Israeli policy, the statement said.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz quoted unnamed sources in the prime minister's office as saying that Pelosi had taken "part of the things that were said in the meeting, and used what suited her."

Earlier in the week, Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisen, said by telephone that Olmert had told Pelosi that he didn't think Assad deserved all the attention he was getting.

Nevertheless, when Pelosi offered to deliver a message, according to Eisen, Olmert said that the message was "don't prepare for war and renounce terrorism" and maybe there can be negotiations.

Israeli government minister Ze'ev Boim said he was skeptical about Syria's intentions toward peace. Words come cheap, he said in a radio interview. Syria must back its words up with actions, he added.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was quoted by the radio as saying that he was concerned about the effects of Pelosi's visit to Syria. The trip might encourage European states to drop their isolation of Syria.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem called for dialogue between Syria and Washington.

Pelosi also drew fire from Washington for saying that the "the road to Damascus is a road to peace."

Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Bush's national security advisor, said that that road unfortunately "is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hizballah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq."

Johndroe called the trip "counterproductive."

President Bush, whose administration is trying to isolate Syria, said that meeting with Assad delivered "mixed messages" since it is a terror-sponsoring regime.

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