As U.S. talks with Syria, Israel experiences unease

September 14, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- By flying to Damascus to meet Syrian President Hafez el Assad, Secretary of State James A. Baker III has intensified a debate over whether the Persian Gulf crisis is bringing Israel and the United States closer together or subtly dividing them.

Mr. Baker's trip is the first high-level U.S. visit in more than two years to the country that Israel considers one of its most determined enemies. Mr. Baker's host, Mr. Assad, is the one leader to have rivaled Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, in denouncing Arabs who have recognized Israel as a state.

With some unease, Israeli analysts now find Israel and Syria on the same side in opposing Iraq and being allied with the United States.

At best, these analysts say of Israel's interests, Washington will be able to persuade Mr. Assad to moderate his policies toward Israel. At worst, Washington will feel obliged to repay Syria for backing U.S. policy, by being more sympathetic to Syria's conditions for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"It's perfectly understandable that the United States tries to improve its relations with Syria," said Zeev Eytan, a military specialist at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "I don't know if it will be at the expense of Israel, or the other way around."

He added, "We are used to having a country whose rhetoric is strongly against us also being a close ally of the United States. That is the case with Saudi Arabia. We are more or less accustomed to it. The U.S. can support Israel and do a lot of business with us, and also do a lot of business with our enemies."

Syria has needed little prompting to oppose Iraq. Mr. Assad and Mr. Hussein lead rival branches of the Arab Baath Socialist Party and have a bitter personal rivalry that dates back more than a decade. Mr. Assad was the only Arab leader to oppose Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran.

Mr. Assad and Mr. Hussein have backed competing factions in Lebanon, supported dissident organizations seeking to overthrow each other's government and, in general, characterized each other as the outlaw of the Arab world.

"The fact that Baker goes to Damascus in itself should not warrant any Israeli reaction of any kind," said Yossi Olmert, a Syria specialist and head of the Government Press Office. "But the last six weeks, for Assad it's a windfall, it's a God-given gift."

Mr. Baker's visit highlights the potentially fierce competition for future rewards from Washington. For countries supporting U.S. attempts to isolate Iraq, there are high expectations of rich dividends. From being the only country in the region with access to the most advanced U.S. military hardware, Israel may find itself competing for military aid with many of its neighbors.

Editorials in the Israeli press complain that the United States is promising to sell Saudi Arabia advanced tanks and other sophisticated weapons that could be used against Israel and that the United States should demand that gulf states first pledge to recognize Israel.

"From now on," said Abba Eban, a former foreign minister, "Israel will have to share U.S. support with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Syria."

In Israel's worst-case scenario, the gulf crisis would help Syria overcome long-standing economic problems and also improve its armed forces. Saudi Arabia has promised Syria aid that some Israeli officials fear will be used for the military.

Syria appears ready to expand its role in the gulf crisis: Diplomats in Damascus reported yesterday that Syria had agreed to a Saudi request that it send tanks and additional troops. Syria has already dispatched about 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia and 1,000 to the United Arab Emirates.

Israeli officials are taking pains to make a public display of gratitude for U.S. backing. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir attended a ceremony Wednesday marking the delivery of two U.S.-built Apache helicopters, the first examples of the anti-tank aircraft supplied to a foreign army.

The same day, Foreign Minister David Levy returned home from meetings in Washington with Mr. Baker and President Bush, declaring that the United States showed "more understanding of our problems and needs in every sphere."

Israel and Syria have been the bitterest of enemies, fighting each other in the all-out wars of 1967 and 1973 and then in Lebanon beginning in 1982.

As a condition for a peace settlement with Israel, Mr. Assad demands the return of the Golan Heights, territory Israel captured in 1967 and annexed in 1981.

In March, Mr. Assad accepted the principle of having direct talks with Israel, but only after the convening of an international peace conference. Israel has opposed convening such a conference.

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