Israeli deputy defense minister predicts Mideast peace agreements by year's end

Break in talks with Syrians, Palestinians `temporary crisis,' Sneh tells meeting

February 28, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A top Israeli defense official speaking yesterday in Baltimore reaffirmed Prime Minister Ehud Barak's commitment to the Middle East peace process and predicted that agreements would be signed with the Palestinians and the Syrians by the end of the year.

But Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy minister of defense, warned that the only way Israel could make peace with its neighbors is by remaining militarily strong.

"The primary goal of the government of Israel is to put an end to the Israeli armed conflict within the present term of the government. For us, the end of the conflict is the victory of Zionism," Sneh told members of Plenum 2000, the annual meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The national gathering of Jewish community councils and agencies continues this week at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor Hotel.

"It takes time, but now in the year 2000, we are going to achieve it," said Sneh, second in command in the Defense Ministry in Israel, behind only Barak, who holds the portfolio of defense minister in addition to being prime minister.

The Middle East peace talks are stalled on two fronts. Talks with the Palestinians broke down this month in a dispute over which West Bank territory the Israelis would hand over to the Palestinians in the next land transfer, and over perceived delays in reaching a final agreement. The Israeli-Syria talks were halted last month after Israel demanded that Syria restrain attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas against Israeli troops in South Lebanon.

"We are in a temporary crisis," Sneh said. "But it is just a temporary crisis."

Sneh was most optimistic about resuming talks and achieving a final agreement with the Palestinians. What remains to be achieved are some of the most difficult and complex issues: control of largely Arab East Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian refugees to return, the future of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the final borders of Palestinian territory.

"We believe that though those problems are so complex, we may reach an agreement on each of them," he said.

He praised the efforts of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to combat terrorism. "I wouldn't give him a mark of A, but B-plus he certainly deserves," he said.

With the Syrian negotiations, he said, "the picture now is not very rosy, as you know."

Hezbollah attacks against Israeli outposts in southern Lebanon have killed several soldiers recently. Syria effectively controls Lebanon.

"Syria gives Hezbollah a license to kill," he said. "They want negotiations, but they want Israel to come to the table weak and bleeding. This is a position we cannot accept."

Sneh urged U.S. Jews to support congressional passage of a "risk reduction package" of U.S. military aid the Israeli government is seeking that would accompany its surrender of the Golan Heights to Syria. The aid package, which could cost billions, would include money for early-warning technology to combat long-range missile attacks from Iraq and Iran.

Outside the hotel, a group of about 50 demonstrators protested the proposed transfer of the Golan Heights to Syria. Barbara Bloom, president of the Baltimore chapter of Women in Green, said her Zionist group disagreed with the position of the Jewish Council for Public Policy, which favors the transfer.

Turning over the Golan Heights "will put Israeli lives in danger, and it will put American lives in danger, because they'll put peacekeeping forces in there," she said.

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