Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Clinton Becomes "The Good Shepherd" of Recalcitrant Israeli and Syrian Flocks at Shepherdstown

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Clinton Becomes "The Good Shepherd" of Recalcitrant Israeli and Syrian Flocks at Shepherdstown

Article excerpt

Clinton Becomes "The Good Shepherd" of Recalcitrant Israeli and Syrian Flocks at Shepherdstown

Despite the convening of the largest Middle East peace conference since Madrid in 1991, with more than 100 participants including the Americans, the Syrian-Israeli talks at Shepherdstown, West Virginia ended in no agreement even on what to talk about first, Israeli withdrawal or security and normalization of relations. The follow-on conference 10 days later was postponed and the Good Shepherd, lame-duck President Bill Clinton, had to be satisfied with continuing the dialogue not between the parties but between Israel and the U.S. and Syria and the U.S., separately. A good try, but Camp David this was not.


Why can it be called a good step forward when the parties, particularly the Israelis, are saying there was no progress? Behind the headlines, there are several good reasons:

1. The establishment of four expert committees on borders, water, security arrangements and normalization of peaceful relations, only two of which, security and normalization, really functioned at Shepherdstown.

2. The agreement by both sides to return within 10 days for a second round.

3. The $18 billion price tag for military assistance being pushed by Israel even before the conference got underway, with hints that the final package of aid to Israel would approach the astounding level of $65 billion from the U.S. taxpayer. The obvious desire of Israel is for a huge new aid reward for making a peace that should actually save her money and would be close to the final step on the road to having peace with all her neighbors. The dialogue that was held defined the issues starkly without any one of them appearing to be a deal-breaker, despite all the posturing about it by Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy upon his return to Tel Aviv. The fix is in or on its way, and the Israeli voter has only two choices, either to come down from the Golan and receive the equivalent of two-thirds of all the aid to Israel over the past 50 years, which equals at least two-thirds of the annual gross national product of Israel, or continuing war with Syria.

4. Both parties clearly demonstrated that they want to reach a settlement and both appear to need such a settlement.


The one event that might stop the whole process and reverse it is the real possibility of further violence stemming from the lack of progress toward a real peace and a viable Palestinian statelet. The administration knows very well it cannot ignore the Palestinian track and apparently hoped to convene the second round of talks on Syria the day before Arafat's arrival would place pressure on him, whether the U.S. negotiators admit it or not.

The carefully orchestrated Shepherdstown conference was supposed to take up where the 1996 negotiations with Syria were broken off by Israel. But it was clear that the Israelis were determined to prevent any substantive discussion about the extent of withdrawal and final borders, and most of the week was spent on "security" for Israel.

The initial Israeli demand for a withdrawal of the Syrian army behind Damascus obviously is not going to happen. Nor will Israel have monitoring stations on the Golan, though there may be a United Nations or even an American "trip-wire" presence there. The word at the end at Shepherdstown was that monitoring would all be done by satellite.


The U.S. made a final push for peace by introducing to the Syrian and Israeli delegates a seven-page working document to be taken home and studied before they return in nine days to resume negotiating on their differences. The document, or self-serving versions of it, soon appeared first in the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat, published in London, and then on Jan. 13 in Ha'aretz, a Tel Aviv daily.

The Al-Hayat article appears only to be a statement of the positions of each side, with a little posturing from the Syrians about what the Israelis are really asking for. …

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