Jewish Journal

Barak: Don’t Write Off American Jews

by James D

Posted on Dec. 16, 1999 at 7:00 pm

The revived Syrian-Israeli talks, which began this week in Washington, could be yet another false start on the twisting road to peace. Or the two countries could move with blinding speed to conclude an agreement that will transfer the Golan Heights back to Syrian control.

Israeli officials say the fundamentals of an agreement are known by both sides; all it will take is the will, primarily by Syrian strongman Hafez Assad, to take the plunge.

What this also signals is the opening of a new and tumultuous chapter for American Jewish leaders.

Israeli officials tend to dismiss the Jewish community here as largely irrelevant, but it isn't; Jewish backing for the accelerating talks will be critical in providing political support for the things Washington will have to do to make the Syrian-Israeli deal work.

That includes support for extensive new U.S. aid. Over the weekend, Israeli officials said up to $20 billion will be needed to pay for a Golan redeployment, and despite denials, it's widely expected Washington will offer some economic help to the Syrians.

It also includes American troops in any peace monitoring force.

Already, opponents of a Golan pullback are lobbying Congress, trying to create roadblocks. How well Barak lines up the mainstream Jewish community to counter their efforts will have a direct impact on the success of the talks that began this week.

If he wants that support, Prime Minister Ehud Barak will have to directly address a number of questions posed by a nervous Jewish community here:

*How can the Golan Heights be given back to Syria without jeopardizing the security of northern Israel?

For three decades, visitors were taken there and shown why this piece of land was so important to Israel's security; now, as Israel gets ready to give it back to Syria, Barak and his government will have to address the anxiety Jews here will feel. It won't be enough to say "Trust us, we know what we're doing."

Ironically, American Jews may be more resistant to change on the issue than Israelis, who live in the Golan's shadow, but also have sons and daughters who are at risk because of the ongoing conflict with Syria.

*Why does Barak believe Syria is stable enough to risk giving back land in return for a mere treaty?

Assad is ill, and the battle to succeed him is already underway. With his family at each other's throats, a smooth transition is unlikely.

Barak needs to provide American Jews some assurance he has thought about this instability and about what it will mean if he signs a deal with Assad, who could be out of the picture before the ink is dry.

Barak obviously can't disclose all his strategies, but vague, feel-good answers will just boost hard-core opponents who reject giving back a single inch.

*How does Barak see a deal with Syria affecting the broader security picture in a region that still includes such implacable enemies as Iran and Iraq, and growing arsenals of nonconventional weapons?

Israeli officials see a Golan deal as the first step in a process of region-wide normalization. Eventually, they hope the expanding web of relations will reach even into Iran and Iraq, or at least, isolate them.

Barak needs to make the case to American Jews that a deal involving the Golan Heights is just one piece of a much broader jigsaw puzzle.

*How can Israel create a warmer peace with Syria than it has with Egypt?

Sure, signed treaties are better than endless confrontation, but Jews here have been discouraged by the hostile rhetoric and outright anti-Semitism that still emanates from Egypt.

Does Barak expect something more from his dealing with Syria? If so, he should make that case to worried Jews here.

*Why is U.S. support -- financial and military -- essential?

Israel will need big infusions of aid to help them deal with the new security landscape and relocate Golan settlers -- that is the place where the expected Syrian deal is most vulnerable to attack by peace process opponents, who will find a receptive audience in Congress.

Barak and his team need to start making the case now why a comprehensive peace in the region is in the U.S. national interest -- and why extra aid represents a smart investment, not just another giveaway.

They need to preemptively deal with the argument that a treaty that requires outside support for its success isn't worth the paper it's written on.

Barak exudes confidence and optimism; that infuriates his critics, but to a clear majority of Jews here, it's reassuring.

But in the days ahead he'll need more: strong, concerted support in Washington by American Jews who are convinced he's doing the right thing.

The political fight here will be a bitter one, and it will become entangled in partisan politics and in the anti-foreign aid, neo-isolationist mood seeping across Capitol Hill.

Barak needs American Jews as partners in this process -- not as distant cousins whose support can be taken for granted or whose concerns can be dismissed as irrelevant -- as Israel heads for a very new kind of future.

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