Shepherdstown, W. Va — It is only a few hundred meters from the improvised press center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where this writer spent the better part of a week, to the conference center where US officials have been trying to help Syria and Israel to broker a “peace” between the warring nations. There is a wide gap between what “peace” means to the parties. That includes the gap between what “peace” means to Israel and to the US.
At first glance, it would seem that the US and Israel express common concerns about the “peace process”. They even use the same terms and definitions on the elements of an accord: “cessation of hostilities”, “concern for human rights”, and “facilitating an atmosphere for peace and mutual recognition”. Yet what these platitudes mean to Israelis and to Americans is another and more complex matter.
For example, there are 35,000 Syrian troops in Southern Lebanon who provide protection for Lebanese Hizbollah terrorists, from their strongholds which regularly shell civilian targets in Israel.
Israel has long demanded that Syria close down this organization whose openly avowed purpose is the “liberation” of Jerusalem and all of Palestine – that is, the destruction of Israel. Israel also demands that Syria disarm and disband ten renegade PLO groups that operate in Damascus, that even the US state department places on the list of terror organizations.
At Shepherdstown, when the writer asked US state department spokesman, James Rubin if the US would support these demands, Rubin replied that the Syrians should merely “restrain” these terrorist bands. When the writer presented Rubin with the fact that the ten PLO terror factions aver that they will continue their activities, the state department spokesman responded with a prediction that the terrorists would transform themselves into non-violent political organizations and abandon the path of terror. Rubin could offer no evidence to support this optimism.
Another issue of passionate concern to Israelis is the cruel fate of three Israeli soldiers, one of whom is an American citizen, who were taken into captivity in Syria in 1982. Since that time, Syria has refused any information about them, to their families or to the Red Cross. At Shepherdstown, I asked the US state department spokesman whether the US would support Israel’s demand for the immediate release of these three men. His response was limited to expressing hope that the Syrians would be “helpful” about the matter.
For many years, international human rights organizations have been insisting that Syria should be held accountable for the crimes against humanity committed by its despotic regime. Even during a week of peace talks, President Assad ordered the arrest of hundreds of people whom he identified as his opposition, and ordered at least one opposition leader to be executed.
At Shepherdstown, I raised this subject with the US state department spokesman, asking whether the American government would insist on including the matter of human rights and civil liberties reform on the agenda of the current peace talks. He would say no more than to respond that the US supports human rights and civil liberties everywhere, including in Syria. He ignored my specific question which was whether human rights and civil liberties would be brought up for discussion in one of the working groups that have been established to implement the accords.
That same state department spokesman, James Rubin, was also asked about the negative attitudes toward the peace process in the Syrian news media, which remains under the total control of the Syrian government. I asked if the US would request the Syrian government to issue a call for peace in the Arabic language to the Syrian people.
Rubin professed he was not aware of any problem in the Syrian media. At a later press conference that same spokesman suggested that there were some expressions of peaceful intent in the Syrian Arabic media.
Since our news agency monitors the Syrian media and since we have not encountered any such conveyance of peace in the Syrian Arabic media, I asked the spokesman at the next press conference if he could provide any specific examples of calls for peace and reconciliation in the Syrian Arabic media. He could not think of any, nor provide any examples.
It thus appears that while officials of the US and Israel use the same phrases to define their positions, they do not necessarily use them with the same meanings. Nor can it be assumed that policy statements or even commitments can be taken at face-value.
For example, following the Wye Accords in October, 1998, the US government adopted an official policy that it demands that Arafat’s Palestinian Authority cease and desist from its incitement to terrorism and war against Israel along with assorted expressions of anti-semitism in Arafat’s controlled media and schools. The US has not, however, shown more than lip service to the fact that the PA fails to meet any such demand.
It goes without saying that the US has yet to make any such demands on Syria.
Hovering over the discussions in Shepherdstown was talk of ironclad security guarantees that the US would provide to Israel to assure it of its security, if Israel would indeed withdraw its army bases and civilian communities from the Golan Heights which tower over Israel’s Upper Galilee region. Yet questions about these American guarantees were viewed as premature by the state department spokesman.
In the past, the US offered iron-clad security guarantees to Israel following US-brokered Israeli withdrawals that were simply ignored.
In 1957, the US policy to force Israel out of the Sinai was accompanied by promises of the right of free passage for Israel through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran, just south of Elat.
Yet in 1967, when Egyptian President Nasser blockaded the straits of Tiran, US President Johnson was hard pressed to even locate the guarantees from President Eisenhower, let alone honor them.
In 1970, when the US president Nixon brokered the Rogers plan that mandated Israeli withdrawal from the Suez Canal, the Egyptian army immediately moved its troops and missiles to an attack position, in violation of the Rogers plan. Nixon did nothing.
Three years later, the Egyptian army attacked Israel from convenient forward positions in what became known as the Yom Kippur War.
Then in 1975, the US forced Israel to cede land and oil fields to a still belligerent Egypt. President Ford signed a letter of guarantee with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin which assured Israel that the American government would never ask Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights, since the US defined the Golan Heights as vital to Israeli security. With that letter, Rabin and his successor, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, were able to persuade the Israeli public that any territorial concessions to Egypt would not be a precedent to cede the Golan to Syria.
The interests of a great power may not always coincide with the interests of a smaller nation.
Marvin and Bernard Kalb, in their seminal book, “Kissinger”, written in 1976, report that in 1968 the new Israeli ambassador and recently retired Israeli commander in chief, Yitzhak Rabin, accompanied US presidential candidate Richard Nixon to view the Golan Heights, recently captured from the Syrians.
Peering down from Syrian gun positions that were trained on the farmers in Israel’s Hula Valley, Nixon observed that, “If I were an Israeli, I would never give up the Golan”. Rabin smiled from ear to ear. “Mr. Rabin, what I said was that ‘if I was an Israeli’. I am not an Israeli”.
It would be reckless indeed to expect that the US and Israel would ever maintain the same foreign policy.
That became clear this week at Shepherdstown.