Will Congress put money behind Israeli-Syrian peace

WASHINGTON — After securing nearly $2 billion in aid to implement the Wye agreement, pro-Israel activists are anticipating what they say will be an even bigger challenge on Capitol Hill: securing funds to underwrite a potential Israeli-Syrian peace deal.

After 3-1/2 years of stalemate, talks between the two countries resumed in Washington Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa — the highest level of negotiations ever between the two countries.

Israeli Finance Minister Avraham Shochat has already indicated that the country could not finance a possible withdrawal of its citizens and troops from the Golan Heights and would look to the United States for assistance.

"Everyone knows the state of Israel cannot support a process of this type with the kinds of investment involved," Shochat told Israel Radio.

While the Israeli government has not put an official price tag on a withdrawal, various Israeli newspapers were estimating that a withdrawal from the strategic plateau captured from Syria by Israeli during the 1967 Six-Day War could cost between $15 billion and $20 billion.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said this week it was too early to talk about U.S. funding for a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. However, she noted last weekend that the United States provided financial aid after the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt and after last year's Wye accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"I think that we've got to remember that if we manage this, this will be 50 years of work that will have been accomplished for a comprehensive peace that I think everybody will cheer and be happy to contribute to," Albright said Sunday on the CBS News program "Face the Nation."

At the time of the Wye signing, Republican congressional leaders raised concerns about how they would pay for President Clinton's $1.9 billion pledge to Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan. The Republicans were also upset that they were not consulted before the offer was made.

Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee and the only Jewish Republican in the House, said last week that while he welcomed the resumption of talks between Israel and Syria, he hoped that "the administration will not make any promises regarding foreign assistance to either of the parties without prior, extensive consultations with Congress."

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, said he believed members of Congress would financially support an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

"I think we have waited so long for this and worked so hard for it, that if Syria were to make peace," Kerry said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," Congress would be "very supportive" as long as it didn't put the United States in a "dangerous situation."

Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said his group is "committed to do whatever we can to secure the support of the American people and the Congress" for any peace deal between Israel and Syria.

Lobbying for what could total in the billions of dollars will not be easy, in light of the debate this fall over foreign aid.

The president and Albright "seem to think there is a money tree here in Washington, and all they have to do is come up with an idea that sounds good and then come back and get the funds," Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.) told the Jerusalem Post.

Callahan, chairman of the House appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, also said the Middle East "gets too large a share of the foreign assistance pie."

Aid to the Middle East totaled nearly half of the $15 billion foreign aid bill passed this year.

Another key issue likely to emerge in the debate in Washington, activists said, is Syria's status on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which precludes it from receiving U.S. aid.

If it is dropped from that list, the United States would have to decide whether to provide Syria with military aid, as it did Egypt and Jordan when they signed peace deals with Israel.

While Israeli defense officials have made it clear that they would need aid to buttress the army when and if Israel withdraws from the Golan Heights, Syria also wants aid to bolster its equipment that has deteriorated since its former patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed.

Longtime critics of the Israeli-Arab peace process have seized on the costly price of withdrawal in an effort to raise doubts about such a move.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has been critical of aspects of the peace process but has yet to decide how to respond to the new round of talks.

Klein said people have been raising questions such as "Why should the United States pay for Israel to give land to a terrorist country?" and if Israel expects true peace with Syria "why do need $15 billion to monitor" the deal?

Another issue that generated heated debate the last time Israel and Syria were engaged in negotiations was whether U.S. troops should be stationed on the Golan Heights to monitor a peace deal between the two longtime foes.

At the time, top U.S. officials said they were prepared to send troops as part of a monitoring force if both Israel and Syria requested such a move.

Back in 1994, hardline American and Israeli critics of the peace process took out newspaper ads showing the body of a U.S. soldier who was killed while serving in Somalia. The critics lobbied unsuccessfully to have Congress impose restrictions on the use of American soldiers before any Israeli-Syrian agreement — including what role the United States and its soldiers would play — could be reached.

Asked about the possibility of U.S. involvement in any international peacekeeping force that could be deployed on the Golan Heights, Albright said on "Face the Nation" that the question was "premature."