Minn. Congressman Says Israel Told Lawmakers It Has No Plans To Attack Syria

Saturday, April 7th 2007, 8:14 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a visiting group of U.S. lawmakers to relay to Syria that Israel had no intention of attacking it, according to one of the participants on the trip, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.

``He very clearly said he was worried that Syria might misinterpret some things that were happening in Israel, and he didn't want to end up in an accidental war with them,'' Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, said in a telephone interview Saturday. ``So he told us to tell them that he was not planning to attack them.''

Ellison said Olmert was concerned that if Syria believed that Israel was planning an attack, the Syrians would make preparations to defend against one, and then a conflict could be provoked if something unexpected happened at the border.

The Israeli embassy in Washington had no immediate comment on Ellison's account. There was no answer at the Syrian embassy on Saturday.

Ellison said Olmert didn't specify what Syria might ``misinterpret.'' He said the group relayed the message to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The leader of the congressional delegation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said earlier this week that she had delivered a message from Olmert that Israel was ready for peace talks, and that Assad had replied that ``he's ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel.'' But Olmert's office later issued a statement saying peace talks could take place only if Syria stopped assisting terror groups.

President Bush criticized Pelosi for meeting with Assad, because the administration considers Syria to be a state supporter of terrorism.

Ellison, who also met with Assad, rejected that criticism.

``If we want to change Syria's behavior, we have to tell that to them,'' he said. ``We have to make it clear to them. We have to engage. We have to talk to people.''

The trip also included visits to Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Ellison called Saudi King Abdullah a ``visionary leader.''

``Even being in the same country where Mecca and Medina are located was personally uplifting for me,'' he said. In Jerusalem, Ellison visited the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, which he called ``personally moving for me.''

He said he was well received in Israel.

``Nice people, serious about the issues,'' Ellison said. ``What I admired in Israel was the very frank and widely diverse points of view that were expressed. People there love a lively debate. And they had one.''

Ellison said he didn't share his views on the peace process with the Israelis.

``I wasn't really there for that reason,'' he said. ``I was there to listen a lot. I asked a lot of questions. I definitely talked less than I listened. This is my first trip to the region, and all the reading I've done and all the conversations I had don't compare to really being there _ just seeing how close the holy sites are to each other.''

He said he would like the U.S. to be more engaged in the peace process.

``It's a good thing that Condoleezza Rice has started to go back to the region,'' he said of the secretary of state. ``The United States cannot simply fold its arms and turn its back on the Middle East.''

The group also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

``He needs to be strengthened, his hand needs to be improved,'' Ellison said. ``And the world needs to step up and help him if they want him to be successful.''

Abbas' Fatah movement is part of a Palestinian unity government that also includes the militant Islamic Hamas. While the U.S. has met with non-Hamas members of the government, it refuses to meet with Hamas officials.