Selling Mideast peace will take homework

Any Shepherdstown agreement will need support of people of Israel and

As they near the end of a week of talks, the leaders of Israel, Syria, and the United States are inching closer to a common ground that may bring peace to the Middle East.

But any success at the negotiating table in Shepherdstown, W. Va., must be tempered by disparate domestic concerns in each country that, if not overcome, could make long-term implementation of a deal improbable.

"The ingredients for success are there," says Ahmad Moussalli, a scholar at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "The question is how to sell it to the people."

First, Mr. Barak faces a splintered public that would have to vote in approval of giving up the Golan Heights, a region they have fought for decades to defend. The exact borders are likely to be a source of bitter argument, with Syria pressing for a full Israeli withdrawal and Barak fighting to keep a piece of the region to show some of his constituents that he came home with more than just a security guarantee.

Second, President Clinton will probably have to convince Congress to shell out billions of dollars - and possibly provide US soldiers - to help pay for and guarantee a peace.

And a third wild card lies in the lap of Syrian President Hafez Assad, an autocratic leader who doesn't have to worry about public opinion. For a deal to be implemented, however, he would have to give up his alleged links to terrorism, which have landed him on the US State Department's blacklist.

Mr. Assad, considered too weak to travel and negotiate, has assigned Prime Minister Farouk al-Shara to lead talks with Barak.

While these concerns are far down the road and not the central focus of talks, they could become crucial as Clinton, Barak, and Assad race against the clock to fashion an agreement.

"This is a rare moment in Mideast history when far-ranging deals are possible," says Thomas Smerling, director of the Israel Policy Forum in Washington, a pro-peace think tank.

But, warns Mr. Smerling, the window for peace could be brief. Mr. Clinton is nearing the end of his tenure and, if an agreement were not finished before then, it would take a new administration months to put together a team and gain the trust of the participants. And, by that time, even if violence did not derail the talks, Mr. Barak would be nearing the end of his term. His power could be waning.

In the US, Clinton has already struggled to get money for peace - and he is likely to struggle again. The 2000 foreign aid bill contains $1.9 billion to implement the 1998 Wye River peace accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It was initially blocked by Congress but was saved by Clinton only after a last-minute compromise.

If a deal is reached between the Syria and Israel, the price tag is likely to be much higher than Wye River was, possibly $40 billion, to be shared between the US, Europe, and other countries, observers estimate.

That money would likely go to help Syria with its devastated economy and to help Israel defend itself and resettle its people from the Golan Heights. The US is expected to play a large role in beefing up the Israeli military.

Israeli media reported this week that members of the Barak delegation have requested, among other high-tech weapons developed by the US, cruise missiles.

Getting more involved in regional security would benefit the US, analysts say, and perhaps allow them to make progress with Iran, a Syria ally. Also, a greater US presence would further isolate Iraq.

Meanwhile, it appears increasingly likely that Europe will pay for most of the funding that goes to Syria - though the US would likely pay a symbolic portion.

State Department officials say it is too early to say what kind of financial incentives would be part of a deal.

Regardless of the price tag, the money will have to be approved by Congress - and Congress is likely to carefully scrutinize the recipients.

One objection Congress may raise is whether or not the US should be doing business with Syria, a country classified by the State Department since 1979 as a supporter of terrorism.

According to the State Department, Syria serves as a haven and a weapons conduit for terrorists organizations, ranging from the Hizbollah guerrillas fighting in Lebanon to the PKK separatist Kurds active in Turkey. Syria denies the allegations.

While it is hoped that Syria would give up its associations with these groups, officials and analysts here are not so sure Assad would abandon a political tool that he has used for decades.

Also, they argue, the US needs to make a strong stand against terrorism while it has leverage over Syria. "This is a larger issue for the US and the consistency of our foreign policy," says David Schenker of the Washington Institute for New East Policy.

According to a State Department official, Congress would have to be informed 45 days before Syria could be taken off the terrorism list. And, Syria would have to give assurances it had distanced itself from terrorism for at least six months before it could receive US economic assistance.

And, says the official, "the assurances must be strong enough to sustain a challenge in Congress."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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