With Israel and Syria talking peace again, the prospect for deploying U.S. peacekeepers to help monitor an agreement could hinge on the success or failure of the United States’ mission in Bosnia.
Experts say a successful Balkan peacekeeping venture with minimal casualties could facilitate congressional approval for U.S. participation in a multinational monitoring force on the Golan Heights, which Israel is expected to cede if an accord is reached with Syria.
“They’re not linked, but a wonderfully successfully Bosnia mission would make it much easier” to make the case for a U.S. presence on the Golan Heights “because Bosnia is by its very nature a more difficult mission than is even contemplated on the Golan,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Israeli-Syrian talks were scheduled to resume in Maryland on Dec. 27 for three days. Secretary of State Warren Christopher plans to visit Damascus and Jerusalem after the first round of talks. Negotiators are then scheduled to return here for more talks in early January.
The Israeli governments of both the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor Shimon Peres have said that the presence of a small U.S. monitoring force on the Golan Heights – similar to the force that has patrolled the Sinai since Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979 – remains an integral part of selling a peace agreement to the Israeli public.
The issue of peacekeeping troops, meanwhile, has galvanized opponents of territorial concession. Some activists, including members of the Israeli opposition Likud party, have turned to Congress in the past year, lobbying against the deployment of U.S. forces to the Golan. Their activity is widely seen among those who support an Israeli withdrawal as an attempt to topple any Israeli-Syrian accord that involves yielding territory.
Supporters of an American peacekeeping role, however, continue to call the entire debate premature. Israel and Syria have not yet agreed on a treaty, they point out, let along on how to go about monitoring one. In addition, neither country has formally requested American peacekeeping forces.
“Israel is talking about something much bigger than the Golan,” said Jonathan Jocoby, executive vice president of the Israel Policy Forum, an organization aligned with the Labor government’s peace policies. “By focusing on a minor issue that is related to only part of the picture, we tend to lose perspective about what’s going on in general.”
“It’s not just premature” to debate a U.S. peacekeeping role, Jacoby added, “it’s almost irrelevant at this point.”
But that argument troubles opponents of troops on the Golan, who fear that the time for debate is either now or never. If Israel and Syria reach an agreement that involves the commitment of U.S. peacekeeping forces, opponents say their objections at that point will be rendered moot. Congress will find itself handed a “fait accompli” – just as it was with Bosnia following the Dayton peace negotiations, according to Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy.
“The Golan deployment has such significant implications for the quality of Israeli security and is fraught with such significant perils for the Israeli strategic relationship with the United States, that it has to be through before commitments can be made,” said Gaffney, who last year led an unsuccessful effort on Capitol Hill to convince members to hold hearings on the issue.
For that reason, opponents are urging Congress to weigh in on the issue sooner rather than later.
“This is the right time for Congress to hold hearings on troops in the Golan Heights,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who has actively lobbied against a U.S. peacekeeping deployment as part of an Israeli-Syrian peace accord.
Supporters of a U.S. peacekeeping deployment maintain that congressional hearings at this stage could prove detrimental to the peace process. The charge that the opposition is attempting to misrepresent the issue and tie negotiators’ hands by focusing the debate on U.S. military involvement and swaying Israeli public opinion against a future accord.
“The entire question of whether there will be an international monitoring force and what role America will play has always been a relatively minor issue on the agenda,” Jacoby said.
For now, as the U.S. continues to deploy 20,000 peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, both sides of the Golan issue will be carefully watching events as they unfold. If the mission founders, some experts believe the window of opportunity to win congressional approval for troops on the Golan may close.
“The administration recognizes that if Americans are getting killed in Bosnia, the jig is up in terms of putting troops on the Golan Heights,” Gaffney said. “If they’re going to do it, I think they believe they’d better be doing it quickly.”