Defense Treaty Hinges On Peace Talks
American and Israeli officials continue to explore options for expanding their military ties in the wake of possible peace treaties — despite paralysis on the Palestinian track and uncertainty in talks with the Syrians.
But this week a top Israeli official indicated that progress in the bogged-down negotiations must take place before a deal is inked. Until now, leaders in Jerusalem had insisted the process was an ongoing one that would continue no matter what happens in the talks.
New defense arrangements “are conditioned on the success of the talks with Syria,” said Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh on Sunday. Sneh was in this country for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum in Baltimore and an intensive round of Capitol Hill meetings. “It’s all conditioned
on those talks.”
A White House official concurred.
“I think it’s unlikely an upgrade could take place at this point without significant movement forward,” this source said. “It would have a chilling impact on a process that isn’t fully cooked. It could have a very negative impact on our efforts.”
Sneh revealed that despite some press reports, his government is seeking something far less than a treaty that would obligate the United States to come to Israel’s defense if the Jewish state is attacked — and vice versa.
“We are in favor of upgrading the relationship,” he said. “Practically speaking, relations are good now. But to formalize it is better.”
But a full-blown treaty, he said, is not in Israel’s interests.
“We don’t want any American soldiers to shed one drop of blood for our defense. We don’t need U.S. troops. We have enough Israeli troops defending Israel, and they are doing it meticulously.”
And, he said, a formal defense agreement “means we have to ask permission before doing something. We didn’t wait 2,000 years in order to ask permission.”
Sneh spent Monday and Tuesday in meetings with lawmakers and administration officials. High on his agenda was the need for enhanced U.S.-Israel military cooperation and Israel’s request for big new security packages to accompany land-for-peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians.
On Monday, he reportedly exploded at a Capitol Hill staffer’s suggestion that Washington is forcing Israel to take unacceptable risks in the peace process.
In his JCPA speech, the former general offered cautious praise for Yasir Arafat’s performance.
“I don’t give him an ‘A,’ ” he said. “There are things that should be improved, especially the policy of releasing terrorists from jail. On the other hand, they have taken steps to combat terrorism that have been very effective.”
And he took a poke at Jewish groups lobbying Congress to limit any U.S. role in underwriting a Syrian-Israeli deal with aid or peacekeeping forces.
“As far as I know, it’s a free country,” he said. “But it’s against the interests of Israel. What we are trying to do is bolster Israel’s defense capabilities, to build a safer Israel. Those who work so actively against it — including some former Israeli officials — can’t claim they are Israeli patriots.”
Mideast Juggling Act
What should Washington do in the wake of the failure of special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross to break the latest Israeli-Palestinian deadlock?
Keep juggling, according to analysts here.
Ross returned on Monday after a week-long effort to revive negotiations that were derailed over disputes regarding the land included in the delayed Israeli pullout from more West Bank territory.
Administration officials repeated phrases from their stiff-upper-lip phrase book — stressing that they’re in the negotiations for the long haul, and that they will continue seeking a formula for bringing the two sides back together for “final status” talks that were supposed to produce a framework agreement last month and a full agreement by September.
President Bill Clinton sought to minimize speculation about the failure of Ross’s mission, and said he is “not throwing in the towel.”
But behind the scenes, they were expressing growing fatigue and frustration.
“We believe both sides remain committed, but there are times when that isn’t enough,” said one administration official. “Crises are to be expected, but the fear is growing that neither side is willing to give enough to prevent an explosion on the ground.”
For the administration, the toughest job now is to keep both the Palestinian and the Syrian tracks in play, even if there is no forward movement, said Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer now in Washington and one of the architects of the first Oslo agreement.
“Washington and Jerusalem are dancing at two weddings,” he said. “Finding the right balance between the Palestinian and the Syrian tracks is very difficult.”
The Palestinian track looks bad right now, Singer said — but the Syrian track should be a higher priority for policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington because of the potential for disaster.
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” he said. “The date for a withdrawal from Lebanon has been set. The entire Israeli-Lebanese frontier is susceptible to explosion. There’s a real chance the Israeli coalition could explode because of the referendum law.”
The U.S., he said, “is playing the role of the juggler. They’re constantly playing with at least two balls in the air, trying to keep either from falling to the ground. Right now, the Syrian track is in the most danger of falling.”
Singer said Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s goal of agreements on both fronts this year is still attainable.
“In the case of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, any agreement is almost certain to be a full-fledged treaty. On the Palestinian track, there’s always room for yet another interim agreement.”
JCPA Holds To Centrist Course
Many observers expected delegates to this week’s Jewish Council of Public Affairs (JCPA) plenum in Baltimore to tack to the right in the wake of criticisms of the group as too liberal.
Instead, the 300 delegates — who brought their consensus positions on key domestic and international issues to Capitol Hill on Tuesday — held to a steady course, with even a slight zag to the left on one issue.
In one of the few surprises at the plenum, JCPA rolled back an earlier decision offering limited support for nonsectarian aid to parochial schools — such as textbook subsidies and transportation.
The rollback, sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women and the community council in Springfield, Mass., won strong support from the big national defense agencies, but it was opposed by Orthodox forces and some local community councils.
“It’s quite startling that a short two years after taking this half-step forward, JCPA is taking a giant step back,” said Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs. “It’s almost worse to roll back something they’ve already accepted.”
Backers of the shift disagreed.
“To have an exception from the traditional JCPA stand of ‘public funding for public education only’ was inconsistent,” said Sammie Moshenberg, NCJW’s Washington director. “We were gratified the delegate body agreed.”
JCPA walked a cautious line on the issue of the troubled Religious Liberty Protection Act — once a top priority for almost every major Jewish group, now a source of deep division because of civil rights concerns.
The resolution JCPA ultimately adopted expressed support for the goals of the law without endorsing the details of the pending legislation.
Also passed: resolutions calling for states to institute capital punishment moratoriums and for South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag over its statehouse.
Despite initial opposition from some community councils, which fear it could raise labor costs for Jewish social service providers, the delegates voted to support “living wage” proposals now pending in a number of cities and counties. The measures would force local governments — and the agencies that get government money — to pay workers more than the minimum wage.
Also passed: a resolution urging professional sports team owners to change team names considered derogatory to some groups.
A resolution praising Pope John Paul II for his upcoming trip to Israel passed, but only after several amendments, including one reaffirming Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital.
The vote came after Maryland Cardinal William Keeler, the Church’s point man in dealings with the Jewish community, stood up for the Vatican’s recent agreement with the Palestinian Authority labeling unilateral decisions on Jerusalem as “morally and legally unacceptable.”
The cardinal told the delegates that the Vatican-PA accord was in Israel’s interest because it repudiated unilateral Palestinian claims to the city, as well as Israeli ones.
But Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee director of interreligious affairs, said that the Vatican statement “created some obstacles and some tensions.”
Shadowing the conference was uncertainty about the impact of the surprise resignation of longtime executive vice-chair Larry Rubin, and concern that the United Jewish Communities — JCPA’s primary funder — would take the opportunity of his departure to curtail the organization’s operations.
Several longtime JCPA observers point out that with the agency’s fate uncertain, getting a replacement for Rubin will be a tough sell.
UN Progress For Israel
Lawmakers who have shouted their anger about Israel’s exclusion from United Nations regional groups are suddenly whispering. The reason: the assessment by State Department officials that significant progress has been made in the effort to get Israel into the Western European and Others (WEOG) regional group — an important step in overcoming Israel’s outsider status in the international organization.
One cause for the optimism at Foggy Bottom is the apparent decision by Spain not to oppose Israel’s entry into WEOG. In the past, Spain — responding to pressure from Arab groups — helped block Israel’s entry.
Participation in a regional group isn’t just a matter of status. It is a prerequisite for holding a rotating seat on the Security Council. Israel is the only member nation not allowed to join a regional group. Capitol Hill activists on the WEOG issue have agreed to hold their fire — for now.
“Things are at a very delicate stage,” said a House staffer.
“There’s a real chance Spain’s decision will be the key to unlocking this puzzle. But as we’ve seen so many times in the past, the UN is unpredictable. Nobody here is ready to celebrate.”