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Israel's Top Brass Don't Take a Shine To Talks With Syria


By John BattersbyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 1995


HIGH-STAKES negotiations to seal a peace deal between Syria and Israel before next year's Israeli national elections have run into two hitches that threaten the momentum for Mideast peace.

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* Senior Israeli military officials are increasingly anxious about their central role in talks over the security arrangements of the 16-mile-wide Golan Heights, which Israel seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

* And Western diplomats here also question the ability of President Clinton to persuade Congress to approve the huge sums needed - estimated at $2.5 billion - to compensate Israel's military for the Golan withdrawal.

Syrian and Israeli military chiefs are scheduled to open talks in Washington on June 27 about security arrangements on an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, a strategic plateau located between the two countries. A second round of talks is expected to follow between the Washington ambassadors of the two countries that will determine the timing and extent of a withdrawal.

The issue of United States money for Israel must be resolved before all sides tackle the question of US troop involvement in a Golan peacekeeping force and financial aid for Syria after a deal.

The optimism in diplomatic circles that followed last month's agreement leading to the resumption of talks has been muted by the Israeli Defense Force's reservations which, diplomats say, could slow the talks. "We are not talking about a breakthrough," a US diplomat said.

"The two things that have changed since the last round of talks between the military chiefs in December last year are that we now have a clearer agenda and a framework agreement for the talks," the US diplomat said.

"But it is not clear how the framework will influence the tough negotiations over practical arrangements to meet the security concerns," he added.

The other difference, he said, is that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad seems more amenable to making peace. "The Syrian attitude has changed ... they are talking about a partial breakthrough."

According to unnamed senior military officials interviewed by the Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fear that the "apolitical" status of the IDF could be jeopardized if senior IDF figures either make concessions or block a political deal leading to an Israeli-Syrian accord.

"If the chief of staff says anything publicly - or if the Israeli, US, or even Syrian media report anything that implies that he has reservations about the settlement - [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin's chances of winning a referendum are slim," the officer told the Jerusalem Post.

An IDF spokesman yesterday said that the IDF was not prepared to discuss the subject and declined official comment.

Where there's smoke...

But Western diplomats and analysts told the Monitor that the IDF concern reaches to the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who will head the Israeli delegation at the opening round of talks over security arrangements in Washington.

"The heart of the debate in the Syrian negotiations will be over the security arrangements," says Dore Gold, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center of Strategic Studies. "If the security arrangements are deemed inadequate, the Likud opposition will have to call into question the ability of the military.

"Conversely, the left-wing opposition will vent its anger on the military. Either way, it will be disastrous for the military to take the blame for what is essentially a political decision," Mr. Gold adds.