Israel to renew its price for peace

U.S. aid linked to deals

Barak, Clinton meet today

April 11, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON -- In a meeting with President Clinton tonight, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is expected to renew his country's requests for new U.S. aid even though peace between Israel and Syria -- a key pre-condition for a substantial package -- no longer seems likely this year.

Neither the Israelis nor the Americans are putting a price tag on the latest request, but it could be billions more than Israel receives as the world's largest beneficiary of U.S. aid. Barak is expected to seek U.S. financing for Israel's planned withdrawal from southern Lebanon and assistance tied to a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.

Barak also is expected to talk with Clinton about upgrading the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship to address, the threat posed by Iraq, Iran and other nations hostile to Israel.

The unusual evening meeting is occasioned by thetight schedule of the prime minister, who has to return home for a meeting tomorrow with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Even without a Syria peace, "Israel is going to be making some very tough choices," said an Israeli Embassy official here. "The American support for the peace process -- to minimize the risks that Israel will be taking -- is very important.

"If Israel is now pulling out of the high ground on the West Bank, if Israel is now pulling out of south Lebanon, all these things have a security implication and a strategic implication," creating a need for U.S. aid.

The anticipated Israeli request is expected to be smaller than the $17 billion, multi-year U.S. package that was proposed to underwrite an Israeli-Syrian accord. "The sorts of figures that people talked about before are no longer relevant," said the Israeli Embassy official.

Israel had sought assistance in relocating thousands of settlers and businesses from the Golan Heights, which would be surrendered to Syria in any peace deal. U.S. contributions to an Israeli-Syrian peace would also help pay for redeploying Israeli defenses from the Golan and for helping Israel to set up early-warning listening stations and other electronic defenses.

The prospect for Israeli-Syrian peace in the near term faded last month when Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, in a meeting with Clinton in Switzerland, rejected an Israeli proposal to return all of the Golan except for a small strip along the Sea of Galilee. Assad has demanded Golan territory all the way to the shore.

"It's a pity the deal with Syria didn't work out, but it doesn't change the basic dynamic" of an Israel facing enemies near and far, said the Israeli official. "A weak Israel that feels threatened is not going to start giving back territory for peace."

Now that the Syrian track has gone cold, Israel's task of winning new U.S. aid has become more complicated, some analysts believe.

A package deal resulting in peace with Syria and the Palestinians probably would have generated waves of goodwill and support, not only within Israel but also in Congress, said Scott Lasensky, an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

As Barak returns to negotiating with the Palestinians alone, "anything he's going to ask for is going to be dramatically less than anything tied to a Syrian agreement,'' Lasensky said. But he added that "there's always been a view that there would be an American package for both agreements" -- with the Palestinians and with the Syrians.

Barak's requests for U.S. aid have been clouded by Israel's refusal to stop selling sensitive defense technology to China. Last week, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen publicly criticized the sales, which involve Israeli-made radar systems that many U.S. analysts believe pose a threat to Taiwan.

Thursday, Rep. Sonny Callahan, an Alabama Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, promised to block $250 million in aid for Israel unless the radar sales were canceled.

In his meeting today with Clinton, Barak is also expected to ask the United States to underwrite the cost of monitoring an Israel-free southern Lebanon and the cost of moving Israeli borders and defenses if a final settlement is reached with the Palestinians. Barak has promised to withdraw Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, which the Israelis and Lebanese allied with them have controlled since the 1980s.

An Israeli request for aid tied to a Lebanon pullout "hasn't formally been put on the table and put into the mix," said a Clinton administration official, but it may be soon.

Clinton and Barak are also expected to talk about upgrading U.S. security guarantees for Israel, but not to the point of considering a mutual defense pact.

Their talk will continue a dialogue begun last summer, when Clinton pledged "U.S. ironclad commitment to Israel's security" to the newly elected Barak and promised Arrow antimissile systems for Israel to defend itself against Iran and Iraq, said Israeli and U.S. officials.

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