Gulf News

The domineerin­g White House

Despite the unfair criticism levelled at Pelosi for her trip to Damascus, the public spat underlined some important facts about the nature of US-Israeli relations

- BY GEORGE S. HISHMEH Special to Gulf News

Many, many years ago when I was a cub reporter for The Daily Star in Beirut, I was assigned to cover the visit of a prominent British parliament­arian, who was arriving at Beirut’s airport late one evening. The parliament­arian, if I recall well, was Edith Summerskil­l, who had been loudly critical of British policy on the Middle East and concerned about the plight of the Palestinia­ns.

As soon as she landed, I was able to talk to her about her trip to the region and she was very accommodat­ing until I tried get her to elaborate on her views or criticism of the British policy. She immediatel­y stopped talking and said: “We have a saying back home that once you cross the rocks of Dover, we do not criticise our government.”

Her comment impressed me and I thought it was quite honourable of her to adhere to this laudable understand­ing. But, on reflection, this was not the case with Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representa­tives and the third in line to the presidency, during her justconclu­ded five-nation Mideast tour, much as President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney and their followers would like all to believe.

For one, Pelosi did not publicly criticise US policy during her talks with the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. In fact, she was implementi­ng what a bipartisan commission had urged the US to do: open contacts with both Syria and Iran. She was also pursuing what many American congressme­n do during a Congressio­nal recess, that is, visit areas of their interest or concern.

And she very wisely hand-picked her delegation to represent, so to speak, both sides of the question, including Representa­tive Tom Lantos, Democrat, California, chairman of House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a survivor of the Holocaust and the Democrat closest to the Israeli lobby, and Henry Waxman Democrat, California, an “advocate” of Israel; Keith Ellison Democrat, Minnesota, the first Muslim-Amer- ican in Congress, and Nick J. Rahall, the senior ArabAmeric­an in Congress among others.

Despite the unfair criticism levelled at her by Bush or Cheney for her praisewort­hy trip to Damascus and talks with President Bashar Al Assad, the public spat underlined two important facts: The close relationsh­ip between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the White House, and the willingnes­s of the Israeli leader to jump whenever he is told to do just that by Washington.

Absurd ‘clarificat­ion’

The “clarificat­ion” that he was prompted to issue over what he had asked Pelosi to tell the Syrian leader was nothing more than a repetition of the American position, leading some to wonder whether Olmert has become a fullfledge­d American lackey.

In part, the absurd “clarificat­ion” declared that “in order to conduct serious and genuine peace negotiatio­ns, Syria must cease its support of terror, cease its sponsorshi­p of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organisati­ons, refrain from providing weapons to Hezbollah and bring about the destabilis­ing of Lebanon, cease its support of terror in Iraq, and relinquish the strategic ties it is building with the extremist regime in Iran”.

Surely Syria, as well, could have its own preconditi­ons and, won’t it be better for the two sides to leave these issues to when they both sit at the negotiatin­g table?

This “clarificat­ion,” according to the Jewish Tele- graphic Agency (JTA) baffled the Pelosi delegation. “The speaker conveyed precisely what the prime minister and the acting [Israeli] president asked,” Lantos told JTA.

Lantos believes that Olmert’s routine message was prompted “by Israeli press reports that Olmert was concerned that Assad was gearing up for a summer war based on the misconcept­ion that Israel was ready to attack in concert with a US strike on Iran”.

In other words, the Israeli leader just sought to reassure the Syrians that “Israel was not in an aggressive posture” hence his willingnes­s to talk peace.

Lantos suggested, the JTA reported, that there was pressure from the White House. The news agency recalled a similar incident during the war with Hezbollah when Secretary of State Condoleezz­a Rice talked Olmert into a 48-hour ceasefire to allow humanitari­an relief, but within hours Israeli planes were bombing again, to Rice’s surprise and anger. It concluded that “Olmert had received a call, apparently from Cheney’s office, telling him to ignore Rice”.

A day after Pelosi’s controvers­ial visit, the Syrian president received Republican Congressma­n Darrell Issa, an Arab American, and other Republican Congressme­n earlier, without any raucous reaction from the domineerin­g White House that is losing control at home. George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist

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