JERUSALEM – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a widely anticipated meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday, bringing with her a message that Israeli leaders were open to renewing long-dormant peace negotiations and drawing intensified criticism from the Bush administration and its allies.
The meeting was the highest-level contact between the U.S. and Syrian governments in four years and the latest in a series of moves by congressional Democrats to force the Bush administration toward a new course in the region.
As third in the line of succession to the U.S. presidency, the San Francisco Democrat’s visits to markets and mosques offered viewers across the Middle East a contrast to the Bush administration’s hard-line stance.
The Assad government seized on the visit as an opportunity to renew bilateral talks between the two countries and criticize the administration for its policy of trying to isolate the Syrian regime.
“These people in the United States who are opposing dialogue, I tell them one thing: Dialogue is … the only method to close the gap existing between two countries,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.
Pelosi emerged from the meeting with Assad saying in a televised news conference that she had pressed him on Syria’s support for Hamas, the militant Palestinian movement, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, both organizations included on the U.S. State Department’s list of international terrorist groups.
But she also stressed a desire for direct talks with the regime that contrasts sharply with the administration’s policy. “We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” she said.
The White House and conservative critics seized on the comment about the road to Damascus to ratchet up their criticism of Pelosi.
“Unfortunately, that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq,” said Gordon Jondroe, a White House spokesman traveling with Bush to California.
Pelosi’s comments also sparked a flurry of statements in Israel. Pelosi met over the weekend with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and carried a message from him. At her news conference, she said that Assad was “ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel.” Her language prompted speculation that Olmert had changed Israel’s stance on the conditions under which it would hold talks with Damascus.
Olmert’s office quickly released a statement after Pelosi’s remarks, reiterating his position that Syria must first renounce support for Hamas and Hezbollah.