Price of peace rises in Mideast Cost for U.S. expected to increase by several billions of dollars

Discussing total 'premature'

Peace advocates say Israeli-Syrian accord will help world trade

January 28, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Israeli-Syrian peace settlement being negotiated on the Eastern Shore may cost the American taxpayer billions of dollars, on top of more than $5 billion a year already sent to Israel and its current peace partners -- Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians.

If an agreement is reached, and if it produces the regional stability American officials hope for, this cost may prove to be cheap compared to the lives and resources that could be lost in another Mideast war. Peace advocates also predict that an accord will yield dividends in the form of increased international trade, helping the region and Western investors.

But in the meantime, the Middle East is likely to absorb an even larger proportion of the shrinking U.S. foreign aid budget.

Claiming the uncertainty of negotiations under way at the Wye River Conference Centers near Queenstown, Md., State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said that it is "premature" to discuss the extent to which the United States would contribute to a deal.

But another senior official predicted that Israel would make a "significant" request for added military assistance. Repeated statements by President Clinton and top aides suggest that the administration is prepared to respond generously.

"We will do whatever we can, whatever we're asked to do within the limits of our ability, to try to make it possible for the parties to succeed," Mr. Clinton said last week when asked what he would do to speed up the peace process.

Israel's main priority is to compensate for the loss of strategic high ground that would follow its withdrawal from much or all of the Golan Heights, a plateau that commands Israel's northern border with Syria.

Israel now mans an early-warning station on the Golan's Mount Hermon that serves not only as an observation post but a position from which to monitor internal Syrian communications.

Replacing the Israeli lookouts may require uniformed international monitors, including Americans. In addition, Israel may seek satellite and other intelligence devices to provide images of Syrian military activity and intercept communications.

Surveillance balloons, such as those which have been used to watch for drug smuggling along the U.S.-Mexican border, offer another possibility, although their performance can be affected by weather.

Various experts say Israel would probably want a new American aerial surveillance system called JSTARS (for Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System), which reportedly can pinpoint and track troop and equipment movement on the ground in all weather from 100 miles away. Israel may also ask for unmanned surveillance planes.

Beyond this expensive early warning equipment, Israel may ask for money to help relocate its forces from the Golan and hardware to build up the new defensive positions it establishes deeper inside its borders.

"There is a significant difference of opinion between the United States and Israel over the Syrian threat," said Anthony Cordesman, co-director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Americans have a lower opinion than do Israelis of Syria's war-fighting capability, he said.

Beyond military aid, Israel may seek American dollars to move settlers from the Golan Heights, to make up for the economic losses resulting from giving up the territory -- including a ski resort and Israel's best winery -- and mine-clearing operations.

"Should there be an agreement that involves Israeli withdrawal, clearly the issue of weapons monitoring, economic projects to promote development, and compensation to Israelis who have to leave are issues that have to be addressed," said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

Syria can't expect any direct compensation from the United States for ending its almost 50-year-old state of war with Israel.

Congress "has so many bilateral problems with Syria that getting assistance out of this place would be nearly impossible," said a congressional staffer who works on Middle East matters.

But with Israel's support, Congress most likely would go along with the administration in granting Syria preferential trade treatment -- meaning lower tariffs -- and fostering increased American investment through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank.

To qualify for a full range of economic ties with the United States, however, Syria would have to be dropped from the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

Administration officials insist Syria won't be removed from the list unless it takes specific actions to halt its support for terrorist organizations. But one official said that "it may be that in the context of a treaty" that Syria actually takes these steps.

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