U.S., Israel draft agreement similar to defense treaty

BALTIMORE — The United States and Israel have begun to draft a strategic agreement that stops short of a full-fledged defense treaty and would accompany a peace deal with Syria, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Sunday during a visit here.

"There are some drafts of future" memorandums of agreement or memorandums of understanding that are "not exactly a defense treaty," Sneh told reporters after speaking at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in Baltimore.

A delegation of top advisers to Prime Minister Ehud Barak held meetings with officials in Washington last week to discuss U.S.-Israeli bilateral ties.

Sneh said Israel's negotiations with the United States are still at a preliminary stage, but that Israel's wish list had already been fleshed out.

The requests include new intelligence-gathering systems, early warning stations, and means especially "to forestall long-range threats from Iran and Iraq" such as weapons of mass destruction.

No American troops to patrol the Golan Heights have been or will be requested, he said.

"It's not a charity," Sneh said, but a list "based on a professional analysis of what we really need." He called on the Jewish leaders to help secure congressional approval of the multibillion dollar package.

He emphasized that Israel's maneuverability would not be limited by a potential future Israeli-U.S. defense agreement.

"A defense agreement doesn't mean we'll have to ask permission for something. We didn't wait 2,000 years to ask for permission," Sneh said.

Ken Bacon, the Defense Department's assistant secretary for public affairs, said last week in Washington that with a peace deal with Syria "it's a little hard…to know what Israel's needs would be and what our response would be."

He added that "obviously greater clarity in the talks and greater progress would lead to greater clarity and greater progress in the talk that we are holding with Israel."

Regarding peace talks with Syria, Sneh said that Israel would not give in to Syrian demands to come back to the negotiating table "weak and bleeding," but that Israel is continuing to try to find ways to renew the talks that stalled in January.

"The major concession we are ready to make is withdrawal from the Golan Heights," Sneh told the JCPA's audience of several hundred.

During Sneh's speech, several dozen demonstrators from the right-wing group Women in Green demonstrated against a Golan pullout outside the Baltimore hotel where the four-day JCPA conference took place.

Asked about discussions to move up a target July date for pulling troops out of Lebanon, Sneh said an earlier withdrawal would not be possible unless an agreement with Syria is achieved first.

Still, he sounded a pessimistic note about the prospect of renewing peace talks with Syria soon and said that even if a peace deal were achieved, the region would remain "unstable."

"The situation right now is not extremely encouraging because of Syrian behavior," Sneh told the plenum. He lashed out at Syria for giving Hezbollah a "license to kill" and for anti-Jewish rhetoric that compared Israel to Nazis. Such rhetoric would make selling a peace deal to the Israeli public infinitely harder, he said.