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Will U.S. pay for an Israel-Syria deal?

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 (JTA) — After securing nearly $2 billion in aid to implement the Wye agreement, pro-Israel activists are anticipating what they say will be an even bigger challenge on Capitol Hill: securing funds to underwrite a potential peace deal between Israel and Syria.

After more than three years on hold, talks between the two countries were slated to resume in Washington this week between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa — the highest level of negotiations ever between the two countries.

Israeli Finance Minister Avraham Shochat has already indicated that the country could not finance a possible withdrawal its of citizens and troops from the Golan Heights and would look to the United States for assistance.

“Everyone knows the State of Israel cannot support a process of this type with the kinds of investment involved,” Shochat told Israel Radio.

While the Israeli government has not put an official price tag on a withdrawal, various Israeli newspapers were estimating that a withdrawal from the strategic plateau captured from Syria by Israeli during the 1967 Six-Day War could cost between $15 billion and $20 billion.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said it was too early to talk about U.S. funding for a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. However, she noted over the weekend that the United States provided financial aid after the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt and after last year’s Wye accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“I think that we’ve got to remember that if we manage this, this will be 50 years of work that will have been accomplished for a comprehensive peace that I think everybody will cheer and be happy to contribute to,” Albright said Sunday on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.”

At the time of the Wye signing, Republican congressional leaders raised concerns about how they would pay for President Clinton’s $1.9 billion pledge to Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan and were upset that they were not consulted before the offer was made.

Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee and the only Jewish Republican in the House, said last week that while he welcomed the resumption of talks between Israel and Syria, he hopes that “the administration will not make any promises regarding foreign assistance to either of the parties without prior, extensive consultations with Congress.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believed members of Congress would support helping finance an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

“I think we have waited so long for this and worked so hard for it, that if Syria were to make peace,” Kerry said Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition,” Congress would be “very supportive” as long as it didn’t put the United States in a “dangerous situation.”

Fresh from a bruising battle to gain the Wye aid, Jewish activists here agreed that it was essential for the Clinton administration and the Israeli government to consult with Congress on the negotiations and the details of the likely aid package Israel and Syria will seek to clinch the deal.

“We really believe that it is essential to give people ownership of the issue,” said one veteran pro-Israel activist who asked not to be identified.

Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said, “We’re facing the beginning of the process,” and added that his group is “committed to do whatever we can to secure the support of the American people and the Congress” for any peace deal between Israel and Syria.

U.S. officials have also acknowledged the importance of working closely with Congress on issues dealing with funds to support the Middle East peace process.

“We have learned from the recent experience with Wye that this is a process that we need to work with the Congress on,” Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said during a recent hearing on his confirmation to be U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Lobbying for what could total in the billions of dollars will not be easy, activists said, in light of the debate this fall over foreign aid levels. During the recent budget battle, a number of Republican leaders accused Clinton of wanting to take money away from domestic programs and use it for foreign aid.

The president and Albright “seem to think there is a money tree here in Washington, and all they have to do is come up with an idea that sounds good and then come back and get the funds,” Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.) said in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post.

Callahan, the chairman of the House appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, also said the Middle East “gets too large a share of the foreign assistance pie,” a view that could complicate efforts to have Congress approve more money for the Middle East.

Aid to the Middle East totaled nearly half of the $15 billion foreign aid bill passed this year.

Activists acknowledge that convincing Congress to approve additional aid is going to be an uphill battle.

Another key issue likely to emerge during the debate in Washington, activists said, is Syria’s status on the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism, which precludes it from receiving U.S. aid. If it is dropped from that list, the United States would have to decide whether to provide Syria with military aid, as it did Egypt and Jordan when the two countries signed peace deals with Israel.

While Israeli defense officials have made clear that they would need aid to buttress the army when and if Israel withdraws from the Golan Heights, Syria also wants aid to bolster its equipment that has deteriorated since its former patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed.

“We have a crisis coming there,” a long-time activist said of the issue surrounding the question of U.S. military aid to Syria.

Another tough — and potentially costly — issue is water.

Syria has said it wants to recover land it lost in 1967 to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, something the Israelis have rejected. Other options to provide Syria with water include getting some from Turkey or creating desalination projects, both of which would be very expensive, observers said.

Indyk said at his confirmation hearing that this is an area where the United States will look to the international community for help.

Longtime critics of the Israeli-Arab peace process have seized on the costly price of withdrawal in an effort to raise doubts about such a move.

Indeed, in their lobbying efforts to prevent Congress from appropriating the Wye aid, the critics said it was important to scuttle the nearly $2 billion aid package because it would only lead to a much larger request to implement a Israel-Syria deal over the Golan Heights, which they oppose.

“An Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, under intense pressure from the U.S. administration, could transform Israel from a unique strategic asset to a potential strategic and financial burden for the U.S.,” Yoram Ettinger, who was head of congressional liaison at the Israeli Embassy during the Likud-led government of Yitzhak Shamir, said recently.

Jim Colbert, director of communications for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, who expressed skepticism that Israel and Syria would reach a deal, said those raising concerns about the cost are trying to get members of Congress “to debate this issue now rather than wait for a fait accompli from the administration.”

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, which has been critical of aspects of the peace process but has yet to decide how to respond to the new round of talks, said people have been raising the questions: “Why should the United States pay for Israel to give land to a terrorist country?” and if Israel expects the true peace with Syria, why do they need “$15 billion to monitor” the deal?

Another issue that generated heated debate the last time Israel and Syria were engaged in negotiations was whether U.S. troops should be stationed on the Golan Heights to monitor a peace deal between the two longtime foes.

At the time, top U.S. officials said they were prepared to send troops as part of a monitoring force if both Israel and Syria requested such a move.

Back in 1994, hard-line American and Israeli critics of the peace process took out newspaper ads showing the body of a U.S. soldier who was killed while serving in Somalia. The critics lobbied unsuccessfully to have Congress impose restrictions on the use of American soldiers before any Israeli-Syrian agreement — including what role the United States and its soldiers would play — could be reached.

The longtime activist, who asked not to be identified, said he didn’t think the troop argument would have too much resonance this time around. “People see it for what it is: opposition to the peace process,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of U.S. involvement in any international peacekeeping force that could be deployed on the Golan Heights, Albright said on “Face the Nation” that the question was “premature.”

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