As more details emerged this week about Israel’s surprise air strike against a Syrian target two weeks ago, there were heightened fears that a miscalculation by either side could lead to the all-out war that some had predicted would occur this summer.
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to six secretaries of state, said he believes the Sept. 6 air attack increased the chances for war more than three decades after the 1973 Yom Kippur War was ended by a truce that has been scrupulously adhered to by both sides.
The Bush administration’s decision this week to join an international conference on Iraq that is expected to include Iran and Syria opens the door to Israeli talks with Syria, something the U.S. has reportedly been strictly against, according to several Israeli analysts.
The summit in Annapolis is being seen by some observers as a success -- not just because it set the stage for a promised 13 months of serious Israeli-Palestinian peace talks but because of what some believe is a new Middle East dynamic on the horizon. Others, though, insist this is nothing more than a mirage.
“It’s not every day you see an Israeli prime minister speak and the Saudi foreign minister applaud,” said Asaf Shariv, Israel’s consul general in New York.
Moshe Maoz, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University and former director of the Harry S Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Tel Aviv, is a recognized expert on Syria and Lebanon. Maoz, 64, and the father of two, lives with his wife in Jerusalem. He was interviewed while visiting New York as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright prepared for her visit this week to Damascus.
As Syrian President Hafez Assad was buried Tuesday following a fatal heart attack three days earlier, all eyes shifted to his son Bashar to see if the military and political establishment that thrust him into his father’s shoes would remain loyal to him.
Leaders in several countries also expressed the hope that Bashar, 34, a British-trained ophthalmologist, would break the stalemate that has prevented a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty.
After two weeks of preliminary talks, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak was to begin serious negotiations with political parties late this week to form the broad coalition government he promised. But before the talks began, Barak met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discussed the latest fighting in southern Lebanon.
Syria reportedly began shuffling its ambassadors and assembling a negotiating team for peace talks with Israel even as Israeli and Palestinian officials met for the first time Monday to develop a framework for a peace treaty a year from now.
“We have the impression … that Syria considers more than ever before that peace serves its strategic assets,” Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told Israel army radio. “In the last month there have been more signs that Syria wants to return to the negotiating table.”
Israel’s surprise air strike in Syria Sunday on what it described as a Palestinian terrorist training camp may not be the last, Israeli officials warned this week as they pursued a new way to halt terror attacks that claimed another 19 Israeli lives at a restaurant in Haifa last weekend.
Jewish groups welcomed last week’s imposition of sanctions on three Russian companies accused of supplying military technology to Syria, but expressed concern about the impact of the wor
Russian Firms Get Sanctions
Jewish groups welcomed last week’s imposition of sanctions on three Russian companies accused of supplying military technology to Syria, but expressed concern about the impact of the worsening U.S.-Russian relationship on Jews in the former Soviet Union and on the Middle East peace process.
The sanctions decision set off alarm bells in Jerusalem, where officials fear that their recent diplomatic efforts to press Russia on the proliferation question could be compromised by the new U.S. action.
The administration action touched off an angry blast from the foreign ministry in Moscow, which described the move as “illegal from the point of view of the international law,” and warned that it represented one more blow to relations strained by differences over the NATO campaign against Serbia.
Jewish groups generally welcomed the move — the first time officials here have imposed sanctions based on dealings with Syria.
“My feeling is that the United States is trying to find a credible approach to the problem of proliferation,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
But other observers warned that sinking U.S.-Russian relations will reduce this country’s leverage in the battle against the new epidemic of Russian anti-Semitism.
“Historically, U.S. leverage on issues like anti-Semitism is greatest when the relationship is good. When relations cool, it declines,” said Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University. “And relations are definitely cooling.”
Last week’s sanctions decision “confirm the rumors we’ve heard for a long time about major arms deals between Russian and Syria,” he said. “This is one more effort by [Prime Minister Yevgeny] Primakov to reintroduce the Russians into the Middle East.”
Mark N. Katz, an expert in U.S.-Russian relations at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., agreed that the Primakov factor is troubling. He cited recent reports that Primakov, an old Mideast hand with close ties to Saddam Hussein, received an $800,000 payment from the Iraqi government in 1997.
Katz warned that sanctions alone will not be enough to slow Russia’s dealings with countries such as Iraq, Iran and Syria.
“The Clinton people keep saying we have to treat them gently or we lose leverage,” he said. “But we never seem to get what we want, anyway. We need to talk more openly about more sweeping measures.”
Nightmare Budget Awaits Legislators
Lawmakers come back from their spring recess on Tuesday, and waiting for them will be an explosive budget debate that Jewish leaders fear may result in big cuts to domestic programs and new problems for Israel’s foreign aid.
The first confrontation will come as legislators resume bickering over the administration’s supplemental aid request that includes money for hurricane disaster relief in Central America and a special appropriation for Jordan.
That measure has been loaded down with special appropriations for a number of business interests, increasing the chances of a presidential veto.
And congressional Republicans have insisted that the supplemental money must be “offset” by cuts in already-strapped domestic spending programs. That could be a troubling precedent when Israel’s supplemental aid comes up for review later in the year.
Before they left town, both Houses passed budget resolutions providing a rough blueprint for Fiscal Year 2000 spending. The Republican-crafted proposals are based on the 1997 deficit-reduction agreement, with stringent spending caps that leave little maneuvering room.
At the same time, GOP leaders are insisting on significant tax cuts and increases in military spending. The war in Kosovo will add even more pressure on congressional budgeters.
“Basically we’re in the third year of a five-year deficit-reduction process,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“Congress backloaded the cuts because nobody wanted to admit up front how difficult the process would be. As a result, this year’s budget is turning into a nightmare.”
Jerusalem Embassy Deadline Approaching — Again
Next week could produce some dramatic news in the fight to force the Clinton administration to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
’Convergence” may soon be relegated to the scrap pile of outdated Mideast phrases, along with “road map” and so many others. For as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert struggled this week to shore up his faltering coalition and respond to calls for a commission to examine the failures of the war in Lebanon, his plans to withdraw from large areas of the West Bank were shelved.
The government’s new focus will be on repairing the damage Hezbollah rockets caused in the north and strengthening that area in the event of further attacks.