What Mideast peace talks mean for the US

Outcome of Syria-Israel parley may cost US billions and change its

By making broad concessions to long-time rivals, Israeli and Syrian leaders are laying their reputations on the line during peace talks this week.

The same can be said for the Americans, whose success or failure at facilitating an agreement will resound throughout Washington and the rest of the world.

At stake for the US are a wide range of concerns, including strategic positioning in the Middle East, global reputation, and the ability of the president to enact foreign policy.

It is also likely that peace will carry a heavy price tag for the US - probably more than the $1.9 billion that America will pay for last year's Wye River agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"America's role in the post-cold-war world is still being defined, and this effort will have an impact," says Thomas Smerling, the Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum. "If the US can pull this off, this won't go unnoticed in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe."

The preliminary stage of the talks, between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, is scheduled to end here today. More substantial negotiations will follow, probably in the US, according to a senior Clinton administration official.

For the US, a Syrian-Israeli agreement would most immediately serve pressing security interests in the Middle East. The region is rich in oil, and it is home to two countries that are near the top of the Pentagon's list of potential threats: Iraq and Iran.

If Syria were brought into better relations with Israel and the US, it would be a major defeat for hard-line elements in those countries, who have tried to disrupt US policy by linking themselves with Syria and making it appear as if the US were fighting the Arab world.

Furthermore, Iraq would be more isolated and the US would have greater freedom to pursue nonproliferation programs there. Peace in the region could also encourage younger generations in Iran and Iraq to give up old wars in favor of reform. Already Iran is showing signs of greater openness.

Extremists in the Middle East would likely be affected as well - if an agreement is reached. Syria has influence over the Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas, who are financed by Iran. They are also linked to the Palestinian Hamas militants - and classified as sponsors of terrorism by the US State Department.

"If Syria is brought into the circle of peace, that means support for destabilizing elements in the region is likely to decline," says Jon Altman of the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

According to Mr. Altman, success in the Middle East could spread to other regions - and reaffirm America's position as the world's lone superpower. "If the US can make this deal, it would suggest that American power can be employed all over the world. If it can't, it would suggest that the world is multipolar."

A Syrian-Israeli peace agreement will also weigh heavily in Washington. President Clinton is eager to build his legacy as he begins the final year of his second term. Some of his top advisers - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, and Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross - also view these talks as an opportunity to cap their careers.

But even if the US can help bring both sides together, there is no guarantee it can take the process to the next step.

Although nothing has been specified, it is likely that the US will help finance an agreement - as it has in past Middle East agreements. If so, the money would have to be appropriated by Congress, which recently has been hesitant to spend money on foreign aid.

A senior administration official said neither side had requested assistance yet, but that if they did, "we will consider it, and we will consult closely with the Congress on the merits of such requests."

A peace agreement is costly to Israel and Syria because they would have to redeploy their militaries. Additionally, Israel would have to compensate displaced residents of the Golan Heights, a strategically important area that Israel is likely to give back to Syria in exchange for security guarantees.

Israel is already the leading beneficiary of US foreign aid. They still receive about $3 billion each year from their 1979 Camp David peace accord with Egypt (Egypt gets about $2 billion annually).

But it may be more difficult to give Syria a financial incentive. Because it is on the State Department's list of supporters of terrorism, its status would have to be changed before a congressional appropriation. Or, some have suggested that Europe help them.

Since his relationship with Congress hit rock bottom last year, Mr. Clinton has been struggling to get funding for his foreign policy. Most recently, Congress dropped money for the Wye River agreement from the year 2000 foreign-aid bill - although Clinton eventually got it back in a last-minute budget deal.

"The [difficulty obtaining] the Wye River ... funds was a warning to people in favor of the peace process - that Congress in not an ATM machine," says Lewis Roth of the Americans for Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group here.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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