The talks between Israel and Syria in the isolated rural college town of Shepherdstown, WV, watched over by U.S. mother-hen facilitators, might one day be seen as the first step toward a lasting peace between the two countries. It is more likely, however, that they represent yet another premature effort by President Clinton to create a non-Monica legacy before he leaves office. If he succeeds, by his lights, American taxpayers will be paying for the triumph for years or decades to come. What we’re really seeing here is yet another example of the conviction of the Clinton administration and most of the U.S. foreign policy elites that the United States, as the vaunted "sole remaining superpower," has the inalienable right to run the rest of he world. This arrogance is compounded by the notion, reinforced by dim and not entirely accurate memories of Jimmy Carter at Camp David, that U.S. diplomats and facilitators have some semi-magical powers (if they can just keep foreign leaders isolated in some rural American outpost long enough) to create agreement among long-time foes that those foes could not reach without the superpower magic touch. Call it the benevolent empire illusion.
A NOBEL FOR DER SCHLICKMEISTER?
I talked to Ted Carpenter, foerign-policy honcho at the libertarian Cato Institute. He said the exercise looks to him like something even more focused than the search for a respectable Clinton legacy. "It could be the beginning of a concerted campaign for a Nobel Peace Prize for Bill Clinton," he said. "The idea that the bomber of Belgrade" and, I would add, the heedless and deliberate destroyer of Sudanese medical facilities " might be eligible for anything to do with promoting peace might seem ludicrous. But if he can pull this off, it might just be possible to imagine it." The Nobel committee has, indeed, made some strange decisions. And it has a weakness for prominent political leaders with checkered careers on the peace front, from Henry Kissinger to Yasser Arafat.
PROBLEMS ON THE GROUND
It is unlikely that leaders of the two countries Israel’s Prime Minister is Ehud Barak is there, along with Syrian Foreign Minister Forouk al-Sharaa representing Oresident Hafez al-Assad would have agreed to direct meetings if they didn’t see at least some basis for an eventual agreement. But the difficulties are enormous. For decades it has been a bedrock of Israeli military doctrine that continued control of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the war of 1967, is utterly essential to protecting Israel from a possible military invasion. That view "the categorical opinion that even in the missile age it is impossible to defend Israel effectively against a ground attack without military control of the Golan Heights" was reiterated in a December 28 piece by former general Ariel Sharon, now Chairman of the opposition Likud Party, in a piece for the New York Times. To give up the Golan Heights, Israel is likely to require not only security guarantees on paper, but a substantial reduction in Syrian military forces, perhaps overseen by an international monitoring force on the ground. But Syria is said to want a commitment from Israel to cede the Golan Heights before it discusses the concrete details of security guarantees. Other issues, including access to water from the Sea of Galilee, are still subject to disagreement.
U.S. OFFICIALS PLAYING IT COY
U.S. officials are shrewdly downplaying the possibility of a quick agreement. So why have they gone to such lengths to get the two parties together, as virtual temporary prisoners or hostages on U.S. soil, before conditions are ripe? Why does every statement urging observers not to get their hopes up convince most observers that they are spinning the situation madly and want an agreement so badly they can taste it? And why is it assumed by all concerned that if a tentative agreement is reached it will be oiled by money from U.S. taxpayers in essence bribing the two parties to do what is supposedly in their best interests anyway? The answer almost certainly has more to do with Mr. Clinton’s lust for a legacy than with substantial changes in the capacity of two countries that have technically been in a state of hostility for 51 years to trust one another. The necessary changes might have come about by now understanding that changes in attitude can be as important as changes in technology or changes in military deployments. But the United States obviously wants to speed up the timetable, to deploy the right combination of carrots and sticks to get an agreement sooner rather than later. If it works, it could turn out to be what administration spinners will claim it is a big step toward genuine peace in the Middle East that would not have been possible with the benevolent and helpful intervention of Uncle Sam. But it might also be dangerous an inherently unstable agreement that could fall apart in gunfire and blood because hubristic Americans thought, unlike an intelligent winemaker, that they could create an agreement before its time.
SOME POTENTIALLY POSITIVE SIGNS
To be sure, some factors suggest that enough elements of an agreement are already in place that a few gentle nudges could make an agreement possible. Some military experts claim military technology has changed enough that the Golan Heights are no longer as essential to Israel’s defense as was formerly the case. (I don’t claim to have even a fraction of the expertise necessary to assess the claim.) Prime Minister Barak is a career military man, former chief of the army and is still Israel’s minidter of defense. If he thinks he can get a deal Israel can live with, that will undoubtedly carry a good deal of weight in Israel itself which will be important since he has already promised to submit any porposal to a referendum of the people. If a non-aggression agreement of some kind is reached with Syria, it would mean that for the first time in its history all of Israel’s immediate neighbors formally recognize the Jewish state as a permanent reality. That could be viewed as an enticing legacy for Mr. Barak. And it may be that if something isn’t done now, while Hafez al-Assad, who is 69 and may (or may not) be ailing, is still alive and in charge, it would be more difficult or take more time to deal with his successor(s). Polls now show Israelis divided about evenly on the desirability of a Syrian deal involving the Golan Heights, but that could change if an actual deal, negotiated and endorsed by Mr. Barak, is actually on the table.
AND MORE PROBLEMS
On the other hand, some Israelis, including Ariel Sharon in his article, worry that a deal reached with Assad might not be honored by one of his successors, which "could cause Israel to end up with neither peace nor the Golan Heights." Another issue that is sure to come up during the talks is the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which has been harassing Israeli troops in the region. The word is that Hezbollah is paid for by Iran and tolerated, maybe even encouraged, by Syria, which effectively controls Lebanon. If, as part of an agreement, Israel pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon, could it be assured that Hezbollah wouldn’t start lobbing rockets and artillery shells into northern Israel, as has been done in the past? Would Syria agree to rein in Hezbollah? Could it make such assurances or does it really not control Hezbollah?
Insofar as Iran does control Hezbollah, it is worth noting that both AP and Reuters on December 31 reported that Iran’s chief leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, denounced the whole idea of peace talks rather vehemently: "There is only one way to resolve the Palestinian problem and that is through the annihilation and destruction of the Zionist regime … The peace talks are one of the biggest cheats, the ugliest ploys used by Israel and its main supporter, America." Khamenei went on to say "Those who are doing this in the name of the Palestinians are committing the biggest treason. This man Arafat is both a traitor and a stupid man."
One would have thought such overheated rhetoric about pushing the uppity Zionists into the sea was a thing of the past. Was this a serious statement or a bit of bluster or a negotiating ploy? If it really does represent Khamaeini’s thinking, is he in any position to do anything about it?
PEACEMAKING ISN’T ALWAYS EASY
I have expounded my own essentially sympathetic but hardly uncritical views on Israel at greater length elsewhere. Suffice it to say that while I have focused mostly on Israel’s reasons to be cautious in these particular negotiations, I also think Israeli intransigence purposely and self-consciously deployed has in several episodes of the misnamed "peace process" (which has little or nothing to do with peace and is not a process) fumbled opportunities that might have led to a modicum of peace earlier. The Middle East is a tricky place where things are seldom as they appear on the surface, and seldom amenable to real understanding by those who haven’t spent most of their lives there.
It is largely for that reason, however, that a becoming modesty would be a more appropriate pose for Americans and other outsiders with anythin approaching a sincere concern for peace in the Middle East. It can be all too easy for an outsider to look at the forces on the ground, the issues on the table and a smattering of the history and say "Look, it’s obviously in the interest of all concerned to cease hostilities and get on with developing the enormous economic and social potential of the region in peace. Everybody would benefit. Why can’t they all get along? Maybe a little push here and a prod there is all that’s needed."
In some cases that might work. It might even work this time. But there are always subtleties and bits of history about which outsiders have no way of knowing. The United States, given its own history, can hardly come to the table or set up the table as a disinterested "honest broker." The U.S. has interests too, and will find ways to have them served (whether the conspicuously ignorant Clinton or Albright even understand or acknowledge this). And even if the U.S. actually transmogrified into a genuinely disinterested observer, having forgiven and forgotten all that went before, few parties would believe it.
Then there’s the question of whether a peace that has to be bought with American taxpayer dollars can be stable and reliable. Ted Carpenter says his sources are talking about an American commitment of between $10 billion and $30 billion to both parties over the course of 10 years or so. Those estimates are higher than most of what you get from the conventional press, but if a peace ransom is like any other government program, it would be wise to view them as unrealistically low.
Such payments amount to bribing the parties involved to do what is already ostensibly in their best interest. If it is really in their best interest to conclude an agreement now, they wouldn’t have to be bribed into doing it (although you could hardly blame them for taking Uncle Sucker for a few billion more if his representatives are so eager to be taken). If they have to be bribed into reaching an agreement, it suggests strongly that condition for real prace are not quite ripe yet.
Peace in hostile situations short of outright war usually comes not because of the light of revelation but after fatigue sets in, as might yet happen in Northern Ireland. It takes a while to recognize the fatigue and a while longer to develop enough mutual trust to act on it.
I suspect peace will come eventually between Israel and Syria because hostility gets too expensive and fatiguing. When conditions are really ripe they won’t have to be bribed or bullied into it (although there might be a modest role of mediation or setting up neutral sites for some third party to play). The fact that the United States is so eager to bribe or bully suggests strongly that the resul will be something other than a stable peace.