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Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad
News and Opinion

Pelosi didn’t botch Israeli message to Syria
U.S. media did.

-- Andrew Seifter 

In reports repeating false and baseless attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) recent trip to Syria, major media outlets continue to omit an important fact that undermines those attacks. According to a report Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz published before Pelosi’s visit to Syria, the real message Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked Pelosi to deliver to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was that Israel has no plans to launch a pre-emptive military strike on Syria this summer. Three members of Pelosi’s congressional delegation, including Pelosi herself, have since confirmed this was the message they received from Olmert. Yet outside of a single Associated Press report, major American news organizations have altogether ignored what appears to have been the essential element of Olmert’s message, even as they reported a “clarification” by Olmert’s office stating that Israel’s policy toward Syria remained the same as it was before Pelosi’s visit.

Before Pelosi had even returned to the United States, major media figures were issuing stinging criticism of her trip. The Washington Post editorial board opened the flood gates with an April 5th editorial titled “Pratfall in Damascus,” which declared that Pelosi had “misrepresent[ed]” a message from Olmert to Assad. As evidence, the Post pointed to Pelosi’s remark at an April 4th press conference that she had “communicate[d] a message from Prime Minister Olmert that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks,” and an April 4th statement of “clarification” by Olmert’s office that stated, “What was communicated to the U.S. House Speaker does not contain any change in the policies of Israel.” Media figures representing other major news organizations such as CNN and Newsweek quickly echoed the Post, suggesting that Pelosi had “fumbled” Olmert’s message and made “rookie mistakes” during her Syria trip.

The allegations that Pelosi distorted Olmert’s message rest entirely on the premise that Pelosi failed to deliver the preconditions Israel has long set for negotiations with Syria -- that the Syrians end their support for Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups deemed terrorist entities by the Israeli government. Both Pelosi and the rest of her bipartisan seven-member delegation have disputed that charge, as Media Matters has noted. But more to the point, media outlets that have accused Pelosi of misrepresenting Israel’s message ignore an essential fact: As blogger Joshua Micah Marshall detailed in an April 8, 2007 entry for the weblog TalkingPointsMemo.com, before Pelosi had arrived in Syria, Ha’aretz reported on April 3rd that Israel had instructed Pelosi to deliver "a message of calm" to the Syrians, in order to avert “the possibility of a Syrian attack on the Golan Heights that will start as a result of a ‘miscalculation’ on the part of the Syrians, who may assume that Israel intends to attack them.” From Ha’aretz:

Israel’s political and military leadership has been preparing in recent weeks for the possibility of a Syrian attack on the Golan Heights that will start as a result of a “miscalculation” on the part of the Syrians, who may assume that Israel intends to attack them.

Israel, however, has delivered a calming message, and has no plans to attack its northern neighbor.

According to information Israel received, the Syrians are concerned that the United States will carry out an attack against Iran’s nuclear installations in the summer, and in parallel Israel would strike Syria and Lebanon.

The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus today and delivered a message of calm from Israel.

"We hope the message will be understood," political sources in Israel said the day before the meeting. "The question is whether Assad is looking for an excuse... so that he can carry out an attack against Israel in the summer, or whether this is a mistaken assessment."

Nonetheless, apart from an April 8, 2007 report by the Associated Press and an April 11, 2007 article in California’s San Mateo County Times, U.S. print and television outlets have completely ignored the Ha’aretz report (again, published before the Pelosi meeting and press conference) that Israel sought to have the delegation deliver a “message of calm,” even though at least three members of the delegation --- Pelosi, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) --- upon returning from Syria repeated that this was the message that Israel had wanted delivered.

  • During an interview with National Public Radio host Robert Siegel on the April 6th broadcast of NPR’s All Things Considered, Pelosi stated that the “thrust” of the message she received from Olmert was that “we are not preparing for war -- that was the important part of it -- we are not preparing for war”:
    SIEGEL: According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz the other day, the statement from the prime minister’s office, from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office, said that Olmert had told Pelosi that Israel continued to regard Syria, quote, “as part of the axis of evil and a party encouraging terrorism in the entire Middle East.” If I heard you, you didn’t -- you don’t recall him saying that in you conversation.

    PELOSI: No. What he told us was that the thrust of his statement is that Israel is prepared to go to the negotiating table; we are not preparing for war -- that was the important part of it -- we are not preparing for war; we’re prepared to go to negotiation when Syria takes steps to stop its support of Hamas and Hezbollah.

    SIEGEL: And you say that’s what you told Syrian President Assad?

    PELOSI: Well, not only just I; Tom Lantos, Henry Waxman, two strong supporters of Israel who -- we had made a very direct message to the president on that score.

  • In an April 8, 2007 article (also flagged by Marshall on Talking Points Memo) for the Jewish Telgraphic Agency, a Jewish news service, reporter Ron Kampeas wrote that Lantos said Israel instructed the delegation to convey the “routine message” that it would negotiate with Syria, if Syria ceased supporting terrorism, in order to signal that “Israel was not in an aggressive posture”:

    Delegation members suggested that after the meeting with Olmert, they were left wondering why Olmert was eager to convey such a routine message -- that Israel would talk peace if Syria ended its backing for terrorism.

    The answer, Lantos said, suggested itself the morning after, when Israeli papers said 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 U.S. strike on Iran. Olmert had no such intentions.

    The leaks to the papers suggested that Olmert’s message was less one of new content than of timing. By conveying a peaceful message, Olmert wanted to make sure Assad understood that Israel was not in an aggressive posture.

  • An April 8, 2007 Associated Press article reported Ellison’s assertion that Olmert "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...So he told us to tell them that he was not planning to attack them."

Reprinted courtesy of Media Matters for America.

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