U.S. military aid may double if Israel quits Golan Heights

Costs are expected to be at least $10 billion

January 02, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- If Israel returns the Golan Heights to Syria, it will seek to bolster its security with an array of weaponry, technology and operational funding that could mean doubling U.S. military aid to the Jewish state for five years.

A variety of sources here put a $10 billion price tag on the cost of relocating bases on the Golan Heights and replicating the strategic plateau's important role in providing early warning of a possible Syrian attack.

If the United States absorbs the cost, this would be the largest American aid package for Israel since 1992, when the two countries engaged in a bruising struggle over loan guarantees to help settle a wave of immigrants into Israel from the former Soviet Union.

Israel gets $1.8 billion a year in military aid, not counting the extra sums it is getting this year to pay for pullbacks from the West Bank. Stretching the new spending over an expected five-year withdrawal could add $2 billion annually.

The price of giving up the Golan would be even higher, because the 17,000 Jewish settlers and the prospering businesses there expect to be compensated for relocating inside Israel.

President Clinton has repeatedly vowed to make Israel strong enough to take the risks necessary for peace. In addition, American officials often pledge to help Israel maintain its "qualitative edge" in technology and weaponry over Arab states.

But the new aid demand is nevertheless expected to pose a difficult challenge for a president dealing with a Republican Congress in his last year in office.

The United States and Israel have kept discussion about Israeli aid needs quiet before tangible progress occurs in Prime Minister Ehud Barak's land-for-peace negotiations with Syria. A second round of talks between the prime minister and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara'a will open tomorrow in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

`No plan yet'

For the moment, Gadi Baltiansky, the prime minister's spokesman, said, "there's no plan yet. There are no figures.

"We don't know yet what kind of an agreement we would have, so we don't know yet exactly what we will need." He said speculation about specific costs is premature, although he echoed Barak, saying, "He will only sign an agreement that strengthens the security of Israel."

But Barak left little doubt Thursday that a Syrian deal will result in significant military acquisitions.

Speaking at a military ceremony, he said, "We are at the threshold of a period in which, if agreements are reached, we shall see a qualitative leap in the Israel Defense Force's procurement of early warning and fighting systems that are among the best in the world."

An Israeli delegation headed by the Israeli Defense Ministry's director general, Amos Yaron, was in Washington on Dec. 23 for a meeting with senior Pentagon officials, including U. S. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre. Officials said the discussions were preliminary. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that Yaron heads a "compensation team" on American aid in connection with an Israeli redeployment from the Golan.

Trying to avoid delays

And lobbyists in the American Jewish community are urging the administration to lay early groundwork with Congress to prevent the kind of wrangling and delays that accompanied the special funding, only recently approved, for the 1998 Wye River accords.

Planning in Israel goes back to at least 1995, when talks between Israel and Syria progressed for a time under former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Though enthusiastic about making peace with Syria, Israelis say they can't count on Damascus' keeping peaceful intentions, particularly if there is a sudden change in the regime after ailing President Hafez el Assad dies. They also believe their military power helps to stabilize the Middle East.

Relocation of bases would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Gen. Shlomo Brom, who served until 1998 as chief of strategic planning for the Israeli military.

Israel would need to build bases capable of withstanding attack, with thick concrete linings, underground storage and probably special ventilation in case of a gas attack, said Gerald Steinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

But this would not be the biggest item.

"A special part of the cost [involves] the investment needed to acquire a military capability to compensate for the loss of the military advantages in the Golan," said Brom, who is a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The plateau is particularly valuable as a lookout post. Israelis refer to it as the country's "eyes" on its enemy. But the heights also serve as its ears, with intelligence equipment used to eavesdrop on Syria.

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