|Israel Resource Review
||18th January, 2000
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An Insider's Report From the Shepherdstown Talks
by David Bedein,
Israel and the US State Department : A Fork in the Road to Peace
Shepherdstown, W. Va -- It is only a few hundred meters from the improvised
press center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where this writer spent the
better part of a week, to the conference center where US officials have
been trying to help Syria and Israel to broker a "peace" between
the warring nations. There is a wide gap between what "peace" means
to the parties. That includes the gap between what "peace" means to
Israel and to the US.
At first glance, it would seem that the US and Israel express
common concerns about the "peace process". They even use the
same terms and definitions on the elements of an accord:
"cessation of hostilities", "concern for human rights", and
"facilitating an atmosphere for peace and mutual recognition".
Yet what these platitudes mean to Israelis and to Americans is
another and more complex matter.
For example, there are 35,000 Syrian troops in Southern Lebanon who provide
protection for Lebanese Hizbollah terrorists, from their strongholds which
regularly shell civilian targets in Israel.
Israel has long demanded that Syria close down this organization whose openly
avowed purpose is the "liberation" of Jerusalem and all of Palestine - that
is, the destruction of Israel. Israel also demands that Syria disarm and
disband ten renegade PLO groups that operate in Damascus, that even the US
state department places on the list of terror organizations.
At Shepherdstown, when the writer asked US state department spokesman,
James Rubin if the US would support these demands, Rubin replied that the
Syrians should merely "restrain" these terrorist bands. When the writer
presented Rubin with the fact that the ten PLO terror factions aver that
continue their activities, the state department spokesman responded with a
prediction that the terrorists would transform themselves into non-violent
political organizations and abandon the path of terror. Rubin could offer no
evidence to support this optimism.
Another issue of passionate concern to Israelis is the cruel fate of three
Israeli soldiers, one of whom is an American citizen, who were taken into
captivity in Syria in 1982. Since that time, Syria has refused any
about them, to their families or to the Red Cross. At Shepherdstown, I asked
the US state department spokesman whether the US would support Israel's
demand for the immediate release of these three men. His response was limited
to expressing hope that the Syrians would be "helpful" about the matter.
For many years, international human rights organizations have been insisting
that Syria should be held accountable for the crimes against humanity
committed by its despotic regime. Even during a week of peace talks,
President Assad ordered the arrest of hundreds of people whom he identified
as his opposition, and ordered at least one opposition leader to be executed.
At Shepherdstown, I raised this subject with the US state department
spokesman, asking whether the American government would insist on including
the matter of human rights and civil liberties reform on the agenda of the
current peace talks. He would say no more than to respond that the US
supports human rights and civil liberties everywhere, including in Syria. He
ignored my specific question which was whether human rights and civil
liberties would be brought up for discussion in one of the working groups
that have been established to implement the accords.
That same state department spokesman, James Rubin, was also asked about the
negative attitudes toward the peace process in the Syrian news media, which
remains under the total control of the Syrian government. I asked if the US
would request the Syrian government to issue a call for peace in the Arabic
language to the Syrian people.
Rubin professed he was not aware of any problem in the Syrian media. At a
later press conference that same spokesman suggested that there were some
expressions of peaceful intent in the Syrian Arabic media.
Since our news agency monitors the Syrian media and since we have not
encountered any such conveyance of peace in the Syrian Arabic media, I
asked the spokesman at the next press conference if he could provide any
examples of calls for peace and reconciliation in the Syrian Arabic media. He
could not think of any, nor provide any examples.
It thus appears that while officials of the US and Israel use the same
phrases to define their positions, they do not necessarily use them with the
same meanings. Nor can it be assumed that policy statements or even
commitments can be taken at face-value.
For example, following the Wye Accords in October, 1998, the US government
adopted an official policy that it demands that Arafat's Palestinian
Authority cease and desist from its incitement to terrorism and war against
Israel along with assorted expressions of anti-semitism in Arafat's
controlled media and schools. The US has not, however, shown more than lip
service to the fact that the PA fails to meet any such demand.
It goes without saying that the US has yet to make any such demands
Hovering over the discussions in Shepherdstown was talk of ironclad security
guarantees that the US would provide to Israel to assure it of its security,
if Israel would indeed withdraw its army bases and civilian communities from
the Golan Heights which tower over Israel's Upper Galilee region. Yet
questions about these American guarantees were viewed as premature by the
state department spokesman.
In the past, the US offered iron-clad security guarantees to Israel following
US-brokered Israeli withdrawals that were simply ignored.
In 1957, the US policy to force Israel out of the Sinai was accompanied by
promises of the right of free passage for Israel through the Suez Canal and
the Straits of Tiran, just south of Elat.
Yet in 1967, when Egyptian President Nasser blockaded the straits of Tiran,
US President Johnson was hard pressed to even locate the guarantees from
President Eisenhower, let alone honor them.
In 1970, when the US president Nixon brokered the Rogers plan that mandated
Israeli withdrawal from the Suez Canal, the Egyptian army immediately moved
its troops and missiles to an attack position, in violation of the Rogers
plan. Nixon did nothing.
Three years later, the Egyptian army attacked Israel from convenient forward
positions in what became known as the Yom Kippur War.
Then in 1975, the US forced Israel to cede land and oil fields to a still
belligerent Egypt. President Ford signed a letter of guarantee with Israeli
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin which assured Israel that the American
government would never ask Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights, since
the US defined the Golan Heights as vital to Israeli security. With that
letter, Rabin and his successor, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, were able
to persuade the Israeli public that any territorial concessions to Egypt
would not be a precedent to cede the Golan to Syria.
The interests of a great power may not always coincide with the interests of
a smaller nation.
Marvin and Bernard Kalb, in their seminal book, "Kissinger", written in 1976,
report that in 1968 the new Israeli ambassador and recently retired Israeli
commander in chief, Yitzhak Rabin, accompanied US presidential candidate
Richard Nixon to view the Golan Heights, recently captured from the Syrians.
Peering down from Syrian gun positions that were trained on the farmers in
Israel's Hula Valley, Nixon observed that, "If I were an Israeli, I would
never give up the Golan". Rabin smiled from ear to ear. "Mr. Rabin, what I
said was that 'if I was an Israeli'. I am not an Israeli".
It would be reckless indeed to expect that the US and Israel would ever
maintain the same foreign policy.
That became clear this week at Shepherdstown.
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