In March 1975, the second Sinai negotiation between Israel and Egypt broke down. After several months of further labor, it was reconstructed successfully when a new element was added: Some Israeli warning stations in the heart of the Sinai were replaced by U.S. warning stations, and an American flag was flown over others. Both sides were reassured. For Egyptians it was a political gain to replace Israeli positions with something more palatable. For Israelis it was a reassurance that positions they vacated were filled by Americans.
Thus, a small but pivotal U.S. role made the difference, producing an agreement in September 1975 that was the foundation for the Camp David breakthrough three years later. The question now is whether the United States should be willing to play a similar role on the Golan Heights, if Israel and Syria should request it and if it should prove a necessary ingredient of a peace treaty between them.
It goes without saying that the United States has the sovereign right to decide if it wants to participate in this way, regardless of the parties' wishes. The U.S. is also entitled to its own assessment of the risks to which any likely treaty would subject its personnel. And the State Department needs to talk to the Pentagon--and to Congress--before it makes a concrete commitment.
But what in the end is a sensible analysis of those risks?
There are many traditional objections--especially Israeli objections--to the idea of stationing U.S. forces on Israel's borders. Proposals for U.S. troops, or for a U.S. defense guarantee, often came from Americans who wanted Israel to withdraw to less-than-secure borders and were proposing a U.S. role as a (poor) substitute. There was also Israel's justified mistrust of international "peacekeepers"--who were likely to cut and run in the face of enemy provocations (as in May 1967), while constraining Israel's freedom of action to preempt or respond forcefully to such provocations. I have always sympathized with these arguments.
The interesting question is why Yitzhak Rabin, who is not a fool, has abandoned these traditional Israeli arguments.
Rabin, as far as I can tell, has adopted a different strategic analysis. For one thing, it is clear that Syria has no realistic military option against Israel. In fact, this has been true ever since Egypt split off from the Arab coalition against Israel in the 1970s. It is powerfully reinforced by the disappearance of Syria's Soviet patron. Even with new Russian arms sales, the likelihood of a Russian air- or sea-lift to Syria in a crisis with Israel is nil. It is not the same Syria as before--because of objective circumstances that are forcing Syria into painful shifts of policy.
Israel's strategic problem today comes not from Syria, but from different directions. It comes from the periphery--from Iran and Iraq in the age of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction--and from Islamic extremism nearby, whether Hizbollah or Hamas. Hizbollah will clearly have to be dealt with in any Syrian-Israeli package deal, in a way that neutralizes its terrorist threat and holds Syria accountable. But otherwise, the Golan Heights are not relevant to Israel's new strategic problem.
Israel, indeed, faces a golden opportunity to consolidate a political settlement with all the traditional confrontation states and to lock in a favorable strategic situation, in order to prepare itself better for the new threats. Peace treaties with Syria and Jordan will isolate the Palestinian Liberation Organization and contain the fallout of the inevitably messy Palestinian settlement; they will strengthen Israel's political position globally (and even in the Arab world), simplifying America's political problem in coming to Israel's aid in some future crisis.
By this analysis, the risks of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights--and of course there are risks--are calculable and manageable, and are outweighed by the opportunity to break the back of Israel's security problem as traditionally conceived, in order to face up to the more deadly security challenges from a different direction.
What does this mean for the United States?
First of all, the U.S. is entitled to insist that a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty be rigorous and balanced in its own terms, with demilitarization and other security safeguards and significant political normalization, so that any American presence--while it may be a pivotal ingredient--would not be expected to prop up an otherwise unbalanced or precarious arrangement.
Second, we must have a concept of how our personnel can protect themselves in case of danger. Either we should send a large military unit capable of defending itself, or, if a smaller monitoring force, it should have the acknowledged right to remove itself in a dangerous situation. If an American presence would have an inhibiting effect on Israel's freedom of action, as critics fear, then the threat of U.S. withdrawal ought to be an additional disincentive for Syrian misbehavior.
Third, the U.S. is in a position to furnish additional assurance of the stability of the agreement by helping Israel maintain its technological military edge. Chief of Staff General Ehud Barak has visited the Pentagon to seek access to advanced U.S. technology (airborne radar and satellites) to ensure early warning of Syrian movements on or near an (evacuated) Golan. This makes sense.
Fourth, and more fundamentally, it is wrong for Americans to debate the risks of such an agreement--including the attendant risks to U.S. troops--in the framework of an anachronistic analysis of what the strategic dangers are.
Fifth, our debate should not be distorted by the eagerness of some Israelis to transplant their own domestic debate here. Likud figures have reportedly been active in the U.S. Congress since last May, trying to stir up American fears of the dangers that U.S. troops would face on the Golan. Likud opposes an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, period. That is its right, but that is a question for Israel to decide; it is not for Americans to try to torpedo this negotiation. Our own participation, meanwhile, is something for us to decide, without the involvement of Israelis seeking to block their own government's policies.
Finally, it would be a mistake for supporters of a strong American defense posture to play too cavalierly on the isolationist instincts of the American public. On the strategic analysis, reasonable people can differ. But old-fashioned fear-mongering has also been in evidence in the catalogue of horrors of all the myriad things that could go wrong with a hypothetical agreement. If we are so fearful a country, then God help Israel if it should ever turn to us for rescue in some real crisis of survival.Essay Types: Essay