SEEMS NEARER As Israel and Syria inch closer to an agreement, the question of whether the United States should station troops on the Golan Heights to guarantee a peace has produced an increasingly rancorous debate.
The question may seem premature, but in the wake of President Clinton’s visit to Damascus and the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan last week, comprehensive peace in the Middle East seems not so far off – and the United States may be called upon to act as its linchpin.
“I think it’s fair to say at this point that an international presence on the Golan” is envisaged “by both parties,” said Robert Pelletreau Jr., assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, at a recent congressional hearing.
“And I think there is a large expectation that the United States would be part of that international presence,” he said.
Opponents of the peace process both here and in Israel, joined by Americans generally opposed to U.S. peace-keeping operations abroad, argue that the time to debate the issue is now.
“There will be no opportunity for a real discussion of this deployment once it becomes the cornerstone of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” said Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think-tank that recently released a study opposing sending troops.
Even some of those with a more neutral position see a value in holding a debate sooner than later.
“If there ware preconditions for American involvement, it’s a good idea to get them out now. There’s nothing wrong if we drop some markers and draw some red lines,” said Michael Eisenstadt, military affairs fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has studied the issue.
“There’s no harm done in disseminating what in fact might be useful information.”
But others, including Israeli government officials and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, believe that an open debate in Congress at this time could jeopardize the fragile peace negotiations between Israel and Syria.
During a recent visit here, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said any debate is premature at best.
“I can imagine other solutions,” Peres said, regarding U.S. troops on the Golan. “I don’t exclude this one, but I don’t believe that this is the exclusive solution.”
On his Middle East trip last week, Clinton reiterated a U.S. offer of troops if Israel agrees to territorial concessions on the Golan, according to an administration official who accompanied the president.
This would not be the first time that the United States has deployed troops to guarantee a peace between Israel and an Arab neighbor. Under the provisions of the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt, the U.S. and its allies have kept an observer force on the Sinai peninsula since 1982.
But whether that is a useful paradigm for the current situation is also point of contention. Many argue that the peace between Israel and Syria would be an even colder and more volatile one than the one between Israel and Egypt.
And the Sinai provides much more of a buffer between Israel and its southern neighbor than the Golan Heights offers Israel and its neighbor to the north.
Both AIPAC and Israeli Embassy officials say they favor a full congressional debate once an agreement is reached. They also maintain that American lawmakers should wait until a request is made by the negotiating parties.
“Otherwise there’s nothing to debate,” one Israeli official said.
Opponents of an early debate got a three-month reprieve when lawmakers adjourned in October for the election season.
Although members of Congress will return to the Capitol for a brief session next month to debate the General; Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, leaders in both parties have pledged that no new subjects will be broached.
But jockeying for newt year has already begun.
In the final weeks of the legislative session before Congress returned home, Israeli opposition leaders and right-wing American Jewish groups scored a major victory when Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) sponsored a panel discussion on the possible commitment of U.S. forces t the Golan.
“There is legitimate concern for this issue,” Saxton said. “There are simply too many questions which must be answered before we commit to another situation.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) disagreed with Saxton’s decision to hold the forum.
Specter, who briefly attended the forum, said he was “very concerned about what impact there may be on Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
“It’s premature to talk about whether the U.S. should make such a commitment because the Golan is still a part of Israel and is a matter of negotiations between Syria and Israel,” Specter said. “We need to be very careful to be supportive but not to interfere.”
Through an effort to insert Congress into the debate, Israeli opposition leaders are trying to show that American support for an Israeli-Syrian peace is soft.
The move, they admit, is an attempt to begin lobbying Israelis to oppose Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s initiatives with Syria.
Yoram Ettinger, former minister for Congressional affairs at the Israeli Embassy during the Likud government, has led the charge on Capitol Hill against U.S. troops on the Golan.
He said that if there is a peace treaty, opponents of territorial compromise on the Golan will use American congressional skepticism about sending troops “to convince Israelis to vote against the referendum.”
Rabin has pledged that if an agreement with Syria includes a withdrawal from the Golan, he will call for a public referendum on the deal.
Ettinger has found allies here in leaders of the Zionist Organization of America and Americans for a Safe Israel, among others.
During his recent visit here, Peres lashed out at Likud leaders lobbying Congress.
“I am ashamed of it because this was not a subject introduced by members of the American Congress, but introduced by Israeli opposition,” Peres said.
“And opposition should argue at home and not come to try and mobilize the American Congress, or parts of it, to take part in an internal Israeli debate,” he said.
At the same time, Syrian leaders have come to Washington to try to warm up to American Jews, the Israeli public and American political leaders in their own attempt to gain support for the peace they envisage – which includes an American presence on the Golan.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa met with American Jewish leaders in Capitol Hill during a recent visit.
Taken together with a news conference where Israeli journalists were welcome and a first-ever interview with Israeli Television, Sharaa’s visit was widely seen as an attempt to build support for the peace process among the Israeli public and American politicians skeptical of the Syrian peace motives and sincerity.
Now, with Clinton’s direct involvement in the peace process, both American and Israeli officials are hoping for a breakthrough in the next few months.
An Israeli official here acknowledge, however, that they will have their “hands full” in trying to delay a Congressional debate until after an accord is reached.