U.S. and Israel Differ Publicly on Need for Progress with Syria

Israeli officials are sounding far less enthusiastic than their American counterparts about the need for a quick breakthrough with the Syrians in the Middle East peace process.

At a conference at the Israeli Embassy here this week, Edward Djerejian, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, presented the American position: that an Israeli-Syrian accord is essential for the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, or any future Middle East peace accords, to survive.

“In our analysis, the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the Palestinian question, the political heart. But the geopolitical and strategic heart of that equation is the relationship between Israel and Syria,” Djerejian said.

“What we should all be focused on,” he added later, “is to not lose the historic opportunity we have now to engage Syria and Israel in a comprehensive effort to make peace.”

But Israel’s deputy chief of mission here, Michael Shiloh, did not seem to share Djerejian’s sense of urgency about the Syrians.

Echoing other top Israeli officials, Shiloh said Israel has enough to do right now implementing the Palestinian accord.

“We may overload the wagon. We have to patiently and thoroughly sort out our difficulties with the Palestinians,” he said.

“If the president of Syria says, ‘I’m now resting with my personal feelings of offense and frustration at being left out of the loop by the Palestinians and not being at center stage and thus, I wish to rest for three or four months,’ I don’t think that it is in the interest of Israel to disturb his rest,” Shiloh added acerbically.

Israel will not ignore Syria, but will continue preparing for progress on the Syrian track, which could come “perhaps this winter or early next year,” Shiloh said.

Despite the appearance of a split between the Americans and the Israelis over the immediate importance of the Syrian negotiating track, analysts here say the differences are not as great as they seem.

“The difference is not the long-term goals, but the timing,” said Daniel Pipes of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

The Americans see a sense of immediate opportunity that should not be squandered, while the Israelis are concerned about overloading their political and psychological systems, Pipes said in an interview.

In the wake of the agreement with the Palestinians, Israelis have expressed concern about their ability to handle the security issues involved in land-for-peace deals with both the Palestinians and Syria at the same time.

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“Everyone agrees the Syrian track is important,” said Richard Haass, a former Bush administration Middle East specialist who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment.

But, Haass continued, “there’s only so much traffic (Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin can put on his political bridges at this point.”

Another analyst said Israel’s “public posture of hesitancy” in dealing with Syria is not a “stumbling block” to progress.

“I don’t think there’s much daylight between” the U.S. and Israeli positions, Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in an interview.

If Syrian President Hafez Assad were to make the “right offer” tomorrow, the Israelis would find a way to accept it, he said.

In addition to Israel’s political considerations, the Americans just have a different way of looking at Syria than do the Israelis, Pipes said.

The United States has been actively involved in trying to work with Syria, although it remains on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

By contrast, said Pipes, the other three “rogue states” in the Middle East — Iran, Iraq and Libya — are not treated as kindly by the Americans.

But to the Israelis, such countries are “all trouble,” Pipes explained. “The Israelis have less confidence and hope in Assad than the United States does.”

The Clinton administration is certainly not losing any time in trying to capitalize on last month’s historic Israeli-Palestinian accord.

U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, the special coordinator for the peace talks, was shuttling from one Middle East capital to another this week trying to stimulate Israel and Syria into some sort of movement toward peace.

Negotiations on the Israeli-Syrian track have been stalemated for months over definitions of peace and withdrawal.

The Israelis have been waiting for the Syrians to define what they mean by “full peace,” while the Syrians have been waiting for the Israelis to specify their plans for withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, in a possible indication of Assad’s frame of mind, an Arab League meeting scheduled to take place in Damascus this coming Sunday reportedly has been postponed indefinitely.

The meeting was to include discussion about adding names to the Arab boycott list of companies doing business with Israel.

American officials have been regularly denouncing the longtime economic boycott as an anachronism, now that Jordan and the Palestinians are engaged in economic relationships with Israel.

But most Arab countries have resisted any moves toward lifting the boycott.

At a hearing Thursday morning on Capitol Hill, Djerejian said the Arab League meeting was in question. The Arabs are “hearing our message,” he told the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East.

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