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Price tag roils Israeli-Syrian talks


WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (JTA) — The price tag of an Israeli-Syrian deal could prove as controversial as any deal itself.

Even as an accord between Israel and Syria appears far from certain, Jewish supporters and opponents of the talks are gearing up for a bruising battle on Capitol Hill over the billions in funds that Israel would seek if a deal is reached.

With details of Israel’s aid request beginning to emerge, pro-Israel activists are predicting that winning support for a package that early reports have put at $17 billion will not be easy.

Those familiar with the process say the early figure is a trial balloon intended to gauge reaction, and the final cost to the United States will remain unclear until an agreement is reached.

Still the issue is galvanizing Jewish activists, as well as U.S. administration officials, who say they understand that they need to involve Congress in the process.

Supporters of the negotiations say that even though most members of Congress are not expected to return from recess until later this month, they have begun educating lawmakers about the negotiations and the positive implications a deal would have for Israel, the Middle East and U.S. interests.

They know it won’t be easy, given the difficulties they experienced in securing nearly $2 billion in aid to implement the Israeli-Palestinian Wye agreement last fall.

“We have begun the process of educating the pro-Israel community about what Prime Minister Barak is attempting to achieve and talking to key members on the Hill and their staffs, telling them that the talks are serious and that it may require American assistance,” said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

Opponents of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights are also planning to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill.

Helen Freedman, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel, said members of her group will begin lobbying lawmakers in early February to oppose any U.S. aid to support an Israeli-Syrian peace deal.

“We are going after the Congress,” said Freedman, who, along with 40 members of her group, protested last week at the peace talks in Shepherdstown, W. Va..

She suggested that the potential price tag could reach $100 billion and that by accepting such sums, Israel would become a “protectorate” of the United States while taking money from “Social Security checks” of senior citizens.

Other hard-line groups have made similar arguments in faxes and e-mails to lawmakers.

During last fall’s budget battle, a number of Republican leaders accused President Clinton of wanting to take money away from domestic programs such as Social Security and use it for foreign aid.

Even before the Israeli and Syrian negotiators got down to work in Shepherdstown last week, Israeli and American defense officials were discussing details of the aid package Israel will likely request from the United States to support a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Late last month, the director general of Israel’s Defense Ministry, Amos Yaron, and other defense officials met with top Pentagon officials to discuss the military equipment and cooperation Israel is seeking.

Yaron was expected to return to Washington this week for more meetings.

The talks have been described as preliminary, and Clinton said last week that the United States is “attempting to ascertain what the general outlines of the costs would be.”

But the Israel daily Ha’aretz reported last week, without citing sources, that Barak has asked the United States for $17 billion in aid to beef up Israel’s military and intelligence gathering operations.

State Department spokesman James Rubin described the report as “wildly premature,” but did not dispute its veracity.

The request includes funding for new Apache helicopters, a ground station for gathering information from U.S. satellites, Tomahawk cruise missiles, which would give Israel the ability to strike Syrian tanks, and funds to beef up missile and laser defense systems, such as the Arrow and Nautilus.

The aid request includes funding to help transfer army camps from the Golan to Israel proper. But it does not include the cost of moving the 17,000 Israelis that currently live on the Golan Heights.

Jewish officials familiar with the request told JTA that the package is divided into three key areas:

• Mobility costs: This area covers moving existing bases on the Golan and rearranging bases within Israel to reflect the loss of the strategic heights. It also deals with costs associated with mobilizing Israel’s civilian army in case of an attack from the north.

• Compensation for loss of strategic depth: To compensate for giving up its position on the Golan, Israel wants advanced satellite technology such as the AWACS radar system, which would provide it with an early warning of Syrian troop movements. The Tomahawk cruise missiles also fall under this category.

• Regional defense: Israeli officials still have major concerns about Iran and Iraq, which have not entered the peace process and are still hostile to the Jewish state. Israel wants to beef up its missile and laser defense systems to knock down Iranian and Iraqi missiles.

Jewish activists said details are being floated as a trial balloon, but nothing has been finalized and lobbying in more than a general way will be difficult until there is a deal.

“That might be a starting point for a request but that might not be what the administration signs off on” and sends to Capitol Hill, said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director for public affairs for Americans for Peace Now.

Republican congressional leaders, who were upset that Clinton promised Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan $1.9 billion during the 1998 Wye talks without discussing aid with them first, have urged him to consult with them before making any promises to Israel and Syria.

Securing aid to Syria could be especially problematic because of its official status as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation that precludes U.S. aid.

The administration appears to have received the message. When speaking about a possible U.S. aid package to support the deal, top officials from the president down have all promised to consult closely with Congress.

Activists say it is too early to gauge support a big aid package would have in Congress, where members have long been told that Israel cannot give up the Golan Heights for security reasons.

But at least one key lawmaker who has bristled at foreign aid in the past has indicated that he would support military aid that would bolster Israel’s defenses.

Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, told the Forward that although he questions why Israel would decide to withdraw from the Golan Heights, he would support military aid to Israel, but would oppose similar aid to Syria.

Callahan also told the paper that it is unlikely that an aid request for a peace deal would be rejected, saying “the Israeli lobby is too strong to deny.”

Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, agrees. During a recent forum on the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, he dismissed the notion that members of Congress would be reluctant to fund a deal because of either their opposition to the president or to foreign aid.

“This will be as much or more Mr. Barak’s peace as Mr. Clinton’s,” said Haass, who handled Middle East policy at the National Security Council under President Bush.

“I do not think that Congress would take the responsibility to pull the rug out from under this agreement if an Israeli prime minister stands up and says, ‘This is good for Israel.’ “

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