News Analysis: U.S. plays mother-hen in Israeli-Syrian talks

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — They are called the Israeli-Syrian talks, but this week's second round of negotiations between the two countries is very much an American affair.

When the talks snagged, it was President Clinton who repeatedly cajoled, nudged and pleaded with both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

Administration officials have concluded that only an unusually active American role can achieve a peace agreement. The Israelis and Syrians may be logistically close on the details of an agreement but are psychologically far apart.

The expanded U.S. role has risks, however. Many observers say it could lead to expectations that Washington can't back up with action.

The American role, critics charge, merely reflects a peace process in which the Syrians have little interest in making peace with Israel but much interest in cultivating ties with Washington.

"It suggests that even if an agreement is reached, it would be grudging," said Daniel Pipes, a Mideast analyst who has criticized the current peace process.

But Pipes does not blame the administration for what he says is its overinvolvement.

"The administration is giving Barak what he wants. And Barak is reflecting the Israeli body politic, which simply wants out and is willing to give the Syrians anything they want."

Talks started Monday and are expected to continue for up to two weeks. By late Wednesday, they'd produced the first face-to-face working meeting between Barak and Sharaa as well as the formation of four committees to discuss water, security, borders and normalization of relations.

The setting for the talks — a sequestered conference center 10 miles from the nearest interstate — was meant to force Israeli and Syrian negotiators into closer contact.

It was also meant to keep the talks secret. In fact, negotiators "voluntarily" relinquished their cell phones — the primary source of news leaks during the 1998 Wye River talks with the Palestinians.

Shepherdstown, a haven for government retirees and a Civil War landmark, reveled in its burst of international fame. Signs in store windows welcomed the negotiators.

"Shalom, Peace, Salaam," read a sign on O'Hurley's General Store. "Where is the Middle East? Everything you wanted to know," read a headline in the Shepherdstown Chronicle.

In addition to a slew of reporters, American Jews who oppose an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights showed up near the site of the negotiations.

The Associated Press reported that about 120 people, including members of the Lubavitch Chasidic movement, members of Americans for a Safe Israel and children from a Hebrew school in Silver Spring, Md., protested Tuesday.

Helen Freedman, AFSI's executive director, told JTA that members of her group will begin lobbying members of Congress in early February to oppose U.S. aid to Israel and Syria.

Inside the hotel, the overarching U.S. presence came to the surface quickly. Tuesday, the Syrians said they wanted to start with the question of borders — and the Israelis insisted on beginning with security.

That forced Clinton and his team of negotiators to center stage. After another round of presidential intervention, the hurdle was overcome by deciding to form committees to discuss the issues simultaneously.

An agreement on procedures paved the way for Barak and Sharaa to meet Tuesday for their first substantive encounter since resuming their peace talks in West Virginia. The meeting was conducted in the presence of Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

But one face-to-face meeting is a far cry from a signed agreement.

"We are still at least a dozen crises away from an agreement," said Thomas Smerling, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace process group. "One of America's jobs is to strike a difficult balance between stepping aside when things are going well–and stepping in when there are logjams."

The Syrian-Israel talks are different from the Palestinian talks in terms of the need for direct U.S. involvement, he added.

"The U.S. role looms much larger because these are countries that have had virtually no contact for 50 years. If left to their own devices, they are more likely to pour salt than salve on their wounds."

Also, he said, Syrian President Hafez Assad's driving desire to improve relations with Washington requires a more active U.S. role.

"Assad won't even let his negotiators into the room with the Israelis without the Americans present at every step," he said.

Israeli officials concede that the reclusive Syrian president has his sights set on Washington, not Jerusalem, but say it doesn't make any difference as long as he is willing to sign a detailed agreement that includes what Barak deems sufficient security guarantees.

"Of course we would like to see Assad come to Jerusalem, or shake hands with the prime minister at a meeting in the region," said one Israeli official.

"We're not blind. We know he is thinking about U.S. aid and about getting off the [State Department's] terrorist list. But if the road to Jerusalem runs through Washington, that's okay as long as the results include a good agreement."

Some observers agree.

Better relations with Washington are "a major incentive for the Syrians," said Naomi Weinberger, a professor of political science at Yeshiva University and author of a book on Syria's intervention in Lebanon.

"But they also understand they can't get the American recognition they want without satisfying Israel's demands. What the Israelis want is a deal that looks really good on paper, with a lot of details in it, meticulously worked out so any successor regime in Syria would know exactly what the expectations are."

Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer working in Washington and a veteran of earlier Israeli-Syrian negotiations, said Clinton's heavy investment in this week's talks — and Barak's willingness to come back for Round Two, despite the fact that he isn't negotiating directly with Assad — shows how close the two parties are to an agreement.

"The behavior of the parties suggests this is the end game," he said. "There's an implied promise here. Why else is Barak coming? And if that's true, having President Clinton there to help overcome the last difficulties is very important."

Administration officials deny they have made any specific commitments, but most observers agree that at least the implication that U.S. money, equipment and possibly peace monitoring forces will follow an agreement could be critical in getting the two sides over the last few hurdles.

Israeli negotiators came to Shepherdstown this week with a preliminary wish list for new equipment totaling $15 billion, including cruise missiles, advanced surveillance equipment and weapons intended to boost the fight against terrorism. Talk of a possible U.S.-Israeli defense treaty is also cropping up.

Some have suggested an even higher figure of $17 billion.

Asked about reports that Israel is seeking at least $17 billion in aid to cover the security costs of a peace treaty with Syria, Clinton said the United States is "attempting to ascertain what the general outlines of the costs would be."

But the president acknowledged that there will be costs associated with an Israeli-Syrian peace deal.

"As I have made clear, we need to make a contribution, as do our friends in Europe and hopefully some in Asia, toward the long-term economic development of a regional Middle East economy," he said.

"So there will be some costs involved there over a period of years, not just in one year. We are trying to determine exactly what that should be."

Syria, sources close to the negotiations say, desperately wants U.S. economic aid.

The Syrians, however, may be misled by the heavy U.S. financial commitment after Camp David — an investment unlikely to be repeated in today's much more restrictive budget environment on Capitol Hill.

"The American role is largely a matter of delivering carrots," Weinberger said. "But we don't really know how many we have — in terms of troops on the ground or multibillion dollar arms packages. There's a danger of a promise they can't deliver on."

Douglas Feith, a national security official during the Reagan administration, adds that Clinton's "overinvestment" in the Syrian talks reflects the administration's lack of strategic thought.

"When we play the negotiations this way, making it clear we are a party to them, we signal to the Syrians that we agree that the key relationship is between Syria and the U.S., not Syria and Israel," he said. "And that's not a constructive signal."