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Olmert Rejects Study Group's Conclusion on Israel's Conflicts

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday rejected a U.S. advisory group's conclusion that a concerted effort to resolve Israel's conflict with its neighbors will help stabilize the situation in Iraq, saying there is no connection between the two issues.

Olmert also rebuffed the group's recommendation that Israel open negotiations with Syria, but said Israelis want "with all our might" to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Iraq Study Group report, released Wednesday in Washington, calls for direct talks between Israel and its neighbors, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians and says resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict would improve conditions in Iraq.

Olmert rejected that finding. "The attempt to create a linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue — we have a different view," Olmert said during the prime minister's annual meeting with Israeli journalists. "To the best of my knowledge, President Bush, throughout the recent years, also had a different view on this."

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Answering reporters' questions for more than an hour, Olmert said conditions were not ripe to reopen long-dormant talks with Syria and added that he received no indications from Bush during his recent visit to Washington that the U.S. would push Israel to start such talks.

White House officials were noncommittal about the report of the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., saying only that Bush would review it.

Palestinian officials were more receptive to the panel's recommendations.

"We welcome the Hamilton-Baker report and hope the U.S. administration will translate it into deeds," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "The region needs peace, the region needs dialogue and we have always stuck to dialogue toward a comprehensive peace."

Syrian President Bashar Assad has called in recent months for a new round of talks with Israel. Syria is a key backer of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group that battled Israel during an inconclusive monthlong war last summer.

While some top Israeli officials have urged Olmert to accept Assad's offer, the prime minister said he didn't think talks would change Syria's close ties to radical anti-Israel groups.

"I don't think there is a Syrian desire for war with us. We certainly don't have a desire to fight with them. That doesn't mean conditions are ripe for us to negotiate with them," he said.

Olmert, however, said that Israel was deeply interested in restarting talks with the Palestinians and said Israel would work "with all our might" to make them happen.

He also welcomed a peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia, saying it contains "interesting innovations that should not be ignored." However, he did not fully endorse the plan, first floated in 2002, which called for Israel to withdraw from all of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, a stipulation Israel rejects.

Olmert also rejected suggestions that Israel's recent cease-fire with Palestinian militants in Gaza would allow the militants to rearm and regroup for another round of fighting, saying that Israel would not allow that to happen.

He said that despite occasional rocket attacks by Gaza militants at Israel, "we will continue to show restraint."

Olmert also addressed the controversy over Iran's nuclear ambitions, reiterating Israel's position that it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, but will not take unilateral action, preferring that the dispute should be settled by the international community as a whole.

He also reiterated his support for the U.S. war in Iraq, a position that caused some controversy during his U.S. trip last month.

"We always felt, like other nations in our region, that the removal of Saddam Hussein was a major, major contribution to stability in our part of the world," he said.