Yes, We Americans Do Have A
Stake In Israel's Elections:
The One That Should Be Driven Through the Heart
of Syria's War And Terror Aims
By Richard A. Hellman
Our April study mission to Israel revealed that, in the run-up to Israel's elections for prime minister and the Knesset, personal attacks and popular, media-driven, questions have crowded out meaningful consideration of the most vital issue by the electorate. Largely overlooked, or submerged psychologically because of its inherent intricacy and potential painfulness, is the issue of Syria, the most threatening but paradoxically promising of Israel's confrontational situations. The dirty little secret that Labor can't admit, that Likud's fractured components can't quite straddle, and others don't even see, is that the door is open through which a Labor government would rush headlong into a comprehensive agreement with Syria (and hence Lebanon), on skids already greased by the State Department (and by advocates from past U.S. administrations and from Europe).
Invoking Ehud Barak as the virtual reincarnation of the martyred Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a Labor government would resume the almost-concluded negotiations where they left off over three years ago and proceed to give Syrian President Hafez al Assad all that he wants. This would include a handover of virtually the entire strategic Golan Heights and Israel's withdrawal from Syrian occupied Lebanon. Barak would give the green light to Washington to sweeten the deal for Assad with massive foreign aid, preferred trade, acquiescence in Syria's continued occupation of Lebanon, commitment of U.S. troops as Golan Heights peace keepers, and a whitewash of the Syrian human rights violations, sponsorship of terror and other crimes. In all likelihood, Assad would get at least the deal that Egypt's President Anwar Sadat received, without any requirements that Assad emulate Sadat by visiting Israel, forswearing war, etc.
What would Israel obtain? A "peace" likely to be so frosty as to make the present situation with Egypt seem positively toasty by comparison. And, in the memorable words of Israel's last ambassador to Washington under Labor, the opportunity to "subcontract" to Syrian forces the security of Israel's northern border.
Skeptics may ask whether this scenario would differ much from that under a renewed Netanyahu mandate. After all, Bibi has said that he is ready to negotiate with Syria, without preconditions, a position consistent with Israel's acceptance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425 last year and the Israeli offer to withdraw unilaterally from the Free South Lebanon security zone, an offer amazingly refused by Syria (and thus Lebanon) and unsupported by the State Department. The answer is yes, it would differ, for two reasons: because Bibi is seen as a far better whipping boy than a negotiating partner by Syria's Assad and other Arab rulers (and their State Department guidance counselors) who refuse to take him at his word (or call his bluff, if you will), and, because with Labor, even the pretense of negotiations will be unneeded as Barak resumes the old practice of preemptive concessions, and, if need be, the State Department presents precooked deals like that pushed through at Wye II.
As Barak plans to lead Israel back to the future, already emerging from the closet are Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin, and the key hands-on Israeli and American negotiators who got so close to a deal with Assad in 1995 that they could taste it (before Senate emissaries to Damascus spooked Assad by casting doubt on how sweet a deal he could expect from the United States). The momentum to complete a "comprehensive Middle East peace agreement," begun at Madrid and advanced fitfully by Oslo, Wye I and Wye II, will be so great, proponents believe, that no voices of moderation (e.g. in the Knesset or the Congress) will be able to mobilize quickly enough, or have the temerity to try, to block the "results of the peace process," tenuous as the prospects - or mendacious as the proponents - may appear.
Why would such an Israel-Syria-Lebanon arrangement be anything but good for the parties, and, in any event, why should thinking Americans care one way or the other ? First and foremost, Israel (with State Department midwifery) would be rescuing Assad's corrupt and almost bankrupt regime. Remember that this regime is regularly described in governmental and other responsible publications as an:
* Unabashed violator of the human rights of Syria's population and that of Lebanon;
* Hospitable landlord and tacit sponsor of such terrorist groups as Hamas, Hezbollah an the most radical PLO factions;
* International narcotics growing and trafficking center;
* American currency counterfeiting and distribution center, and most important,
* Occupier of Lebanon, no less than Iraq was of Kuwait in 1990 and 1991 (before western intervention), with an estimated 35,000 Syrian troops and over one million guest workers taking Lebanese jobs and sending funds home to bolster Syria's economy.
Still more threatening to U.S. interests in Middle East peace and security are Assad's ongoing purchases of sophisticated conventional and non-conventional weapons systems from Russia and other suppliers, and his crash program to produce deep tunnels to protect from any conventional air attack his arms factories and scud missiles capable of reaching all of Israel. Not one to hold a grudge and a proponent of Arab unity when it serves his purposes, Assad has made continuing overtures to Saddam Hussein, including offers to resupply Iraq's depleted stocks of war materiel.
Incredibly no one in the State Department seems to view Assad's present economic distress, growing questions as to whether he can perpetuate his dynasty through his son and heir apparent, or the tacit Turkey-Israel-Jordan alliance, as opportunities to press him to cease his war preparations, abandon Lebanon, and desist from his criminal action.
Similarly none of Israel's leaders (except possibly Likud Defense Minister Moshe Arens) seems inclined to talk Turkey to Assad, i.e., to tell him that, as with Turkey's fiat to Assad in the case of Ocalan, Israel expects Syria to expel terrorist leaders who send coded signals from Damascus for attacks on Israel (e.g., the March 1996 Jerusalem bus bombings), to leash Hezbollah, and to find Israel's POW's, or suffer dire consequences.
Given Assad's track record and the opportunities for policy changes, why should anyone blindly continue to treat his rogue regime as a "partner for peace?" Clearly a Barak-led Labor government would not be hindered by such concerns or even by the reasonable restraints under which Netanyahu has acted. The momentum will be too great. The prospect of a Labor government-State Department rush to a false peace should have the most profoundly sobering effect on every thinking American or Israeli, policy-maker or ordinary citizen. There are other important issues in the Israel elections but none with such import for Israel's peace and security, with such a clear division between the parties' prospects, or with such profoundly adverse potential effects on vital U.S. Middle East interests. We indeed do have a stake in Israel's elections - the one which may be driven through the heart of Assad's imperial and criminal ambitions by adroit new initiatives , or ignored in the rush to peace at any price. Pray that all Israeli voters think soberly and vote wisely, for their peace and security - and ours- may well depend on it!
Richard A. Hellman, President of the Middle East Research Institute Ltd. and of CIPAC, lived and worked in Israel for seven years and has studied the strategic and geopolitical situation of Israel in the cultural and historical context of the Middle East for many years.