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


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.

* 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.

Gold says former IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak was dragged into the political arena during the first round of talks by Syrian and Israeli chiefs last December when he had proposed a scaling down of the Syrian standing force.

"This caused [Syrian President] Assad to hit the roof, and the talks were called off," Gold says.

The reported remarks of the IDF officer coincided with the publication of an opinion poll by the Steinmetz Peace Center at Tel Aviv University, which suggested why top IDF officers are playing such a crucial role in the negotiations.

The poll indicated that 65.6 percent of the public is more inclined to trust the IDF's recommendations on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights than statements by politicians.

Soldiers stand tall

The poll asked respondents to rate the opinions of nine different interested parties in order of importance when making up their own minds about what should happen in relation to the Golan Heights.

The IDF came in first, the general public second with 54 percent, and the Israeli settlers on the Golan with 52 percent.

Mr. Rabin came in fourth with 39.5 percent, the United States fifth with 31 percent, the Knesset sixth with 29.5 percent, and the Israeli Cabinet seventh with 27.4 percent. The Likud came in eighth with 26 percent, and Jewish rabbis came in last with 9 percent.

"I think the conclusion to be drawn here is that there is a growing mistrust by Israelis in the common sense of the government on key issues," says Tamar Hermann, director of the Steinmetz Peace Center.

"The conclusion of the public is that the government is prepared to pay a very expensive price for a Syrian deal, which could be struck far more cheaply," Ms. Hermann says.

The US diplomat said that following the July 27 talks in Washington, US special envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross will visit the region for meetings with Assad and Rabin.

This will be followed by a resumption of talks in Washington between the Israeli and Syrian ambassadors and senior military officers, but not the chiefs of staff.

The security arrangements that will come up for discussion on June 27 include Israel's demand for an early-warning station on Mt. Hermon overlooking the Golan Heights.

Both sides want access to US satellite intelligence that could eliminate some of the more cumbersome electronic-monitoring devices being demanded at this stage. Israel wants electronic monitoring of the entrances to Syrian tank bases.

Israel is insisting on the demilitarization of the whole Golan and wants "limited-force zones" all the way to Damascus, only 40 miles from the Golan. Israel agrees to similar zones extending into its territory, but opposes the Syrian demand for geographical symmetry.

Israel also wants a US-led international force to monitor the peace. The US is keeping an open mind on the subject depending on what is jointly decided at the Israel-Syria talks.

Israel is proposing joint Israel-Syria patrols before any other agreements are reached as an immediate confidence-building measure.

Israel and the US are discussing a military compensation package that would include high-technology hardware, such as the JSTARS surveillance and coordination airplane, stationary ground early warning systems, and satellite transformation and linkage stations.

The prospects of a substantial US aid package to Syria appear increasingly slim in light of Congress's failure so far to approve a $275 million debt relief package to Jordan, which was promised in return for its making peace with Israel last October. "If there are problems getting aid passed for Jordan, led by the friendly King Hussein, you can imagine the difficulty in approving funds for Assad," Gold says.

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