WASHINGTON (Jul. 7)
Thanks in part to a concerted effort by the Israeli government and pro-Israel lobbyists, the Senate has overwhelmingly defeated a controversial measure seeking to impose burdensome restrictions for deploying U.S. troops on the Golan Heights as part of any future Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.
In the final hours before Congress adjourned last Friday for a weeklong vacation, senators debated an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill that analysts say could derail any future Israel-Syria peace accords.
The debate topped a whirlwind week for groups opposed to stationing U.S. peacekeepers on the Golan.
The groups, mostly right-wing Jewish and Christian pro-Israel groups opposed to the current peace process in the Middle East initially convinced Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to introduce the measure.
Cochran later withdrew his offer after intense pressure from Israeli officials and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, both of whom consider a debate on the issue premature.
After withdrawing his support for the amendment, Cochran issued a statement saying, “I was under the false-impression that the amendment had the support of the Jewish community and the Israeli government.”
In the end, Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), in a move that caught many opponents and supporters alike off guard, introduced the amendment on the Senate floor last Friday.
Wallop is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank that was pushing the amendment.
A ‘MORAL VICTORY’
The amendment sought to prevent the Defense Department from spending any money on a Golan Heights U.S. peacekeeping mission until Congress accepts a detailed report on a potential deployment and its limitations.
Despite the 67-3 defeat that came shortly after 10 p.m., Herbert Zweibon, chairman of Americans for a Safe Israel and one of the main proponents of the measure, said the fact that the Senate debate had taken place at all was a “moral victory.”
Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich and senior AIPAC officials all had lobbied senators to oppose the Wallop amendment, according to Capitol Hill sources.
Senior State Department officials joined the push to defeat the measure as well, arguing the amendment would tie their hands in ongoing delicate negotiations between Israel and Syria.
Last month, 20 groups including AFSI, the Jewish War Veterans, the Center for Strategic Policy, Pro Israel and a handful of pro-Israel Christian groups, joined to form the Coalition for a Secure U.S.-Israel Friendship.
The coalition, opposed to any U.S. troops on the Golan, took full-page advertisements in The New York Times and Washington Post with a photo of Somalis dragging an American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu.
Until Friday, the coalition had been unsuccessful in finding a member of Congress to back the initiative.
AIPAC and the Israeli government opposed the amendment, arguing that the question of U.S. observers or troops on the Golan is not appropriate at this time.
“The issue at best is premature,” said an Israeli official here who asked not to be identified.
“No American soldier would be in a position of defending the State of Israel if and when an agreement is reached with Syria,” the official said.
RABIN JOINS THE FRAY
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin joined the fray last week, lashing out at groups pushing the measure.
“This is simply stupidity, a distorted presentation by the Israeli right and the American Jewish right,” Rabin told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot last week.
“The hatred for the government, the desire to put up stumbling blocks on the road to peace, are driving the extreme right out of its mind,” the prime minister said.
AIPAC opposed the measure, according to an AIPAC official, because the debate about stationing U.S. troops on the Golan “should be done at a time when an informed debate can take place, when the possible content and context of such a proposal would be known.”
Zweibon attacked AIPAC, accusing the pro-Israel lobby of “risking the entire future of American-Israeli relations, for the sake of advancing Rabin’s political agenda.”
“By paving the way for U.S. troops on the Golan, AIPAC is creating a situation in which Israel will be blamed when Hezbollah terrorists attack GIs on the Golan,” Zweibon said.
The debate on the Wallop amendment came one day after Secretary of State Warren Christopher testified on the issue of a U.S. presence on the Golan at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
“The United States is not going to preclude itself from assisting the parties if the United States presence or an international presence would make the difference between peace and possible war in that region,” said Christopher, who is scheduled to visit the Middle East later this month.
Christopher has promised in a letter to Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to consult Congress if any agreement involving American forces is reached.
Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Don Nickles (R-Okl.) were Wallop’s lone supporters.
Only Wallop spoke in favor of the amendment during the half-hour Senate debate.
“Before our country and our people get into the business of guaranteeing the borders of friends and allies against hostile neighbors, we should think long and hard about the potential consequences of such an action,” Wallop said.
Among those speaking against the amendment was Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who said, “We have an opportunity to witness an incredible peace agreement being initiated, and we ought not interfere in any way.
The issue of U.S. troops on the Golan could resurface in the coming weeks when the Senate debates the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), an opponent of sending U.S. troops to the Golan without congressional restrictions, is considering introducing an amendment during the debate, according to a source on Capitol Hill.
D’Amato was not present at the debate on the issue last Friday.