January/February 2000

Moshe Arens: Turning the U.S. from an Ally into a Judge

For many years now, Israel and the United States have enjoyed a unique relationship - a friendship that has turned into an alliance. The foundation of this relationship are the ideals, principles and values shared by the two countries, so distant geographically and so different in size.Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, quite naturally adopted the norms of democratic governance as exemplified by the United States - civil liberties, freedom of expression, and the rule of law.

Throughout the years of the Cold War, it became clear that common ideals and values also made for common strategic interests, and thus was forged a strategic alliance between the two countries.

Unlike some of the democracies of Western Europe, which in their Middle East policy generally were inclined to place commercial interests before principles, the United States, a country with a strong ideological orientation, has stood by Israel's side whenever it had to face the hostility of surrounding autocratic Arab regimes.

In moving toward an accommodation with its Arab neighbors, Israeli governments have traditionally insisted on direct negotiations.

The common-sense policy reflected an unwillingness to have an agreement imposed on Israel by third parties, and was based on the assumption that an Arab leader's readiness for direct contact with Israeli negotiators was an essential first step in arriving at a peace agreement.

When direct negotiations between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat ran into difficulties in the United States, President Jimmy Carter was prepared to assume the role of "honest broker."

No such U.S. mediation was required to arrive at the Oslo agreements, nor for the peace negotiations with Jordan's King Hussein.

Things changed last year at Wye Plantation. And not for the better, as far as Israel was concerned.

With Benjamin Netanyahu's approval, the United States moved from being an "honest broker" to playing the role of "facilitator" and eventually to arbitering between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

This role change was inevitably accompanied by a movement of the United States from its natural and traditional position at Israel's side, and generally on Israel's side, to a position somewhere in the middle between Israel and the Palestinians and, on occasion, even right into the arms of Yasser Arafat.

The Wye negotiations that turned the U.S. into an arbiter between conflicting Israeli and Palestinian positions and interpretations resulted in the establishment of close and even intimate relations between the Clinton administration, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

It culminated in Clinton's appearance before the Palestinian National Congress in Gaza and his unprecedented declaration there that the aspirations of the Palestinians had the support of the American people.

It significantly weakened Israel's position in its negotiations with the Palestinians. Now, whenever Israel does not meet Arafat's demands, Arafat is on the plane to Washington to complain to Clinton in the Oval Office.

Are we about to see a replay of this role change for the U.S. in the negotiations with Syria? Is it possible that the president of the U.S. assumes a neutral posture when it comes to negotiations between its ally, Israel, and Syria, a totalitarian state that has turned Lebanon into a puppet state and which is on the U.S. list of countries practicing terrorism? Will reality be distorted to the point of creating a symmetry between Ehud Barak, Israel's democratically elected leader, and Hafez Assad, the cruel dictator in Damascus?

Unfortunately, we have seen this happening in the months since Barak's election.

His insistence on involving President Clinton in the negotiations with Syria, and his subsequent agreement to hold the negotiations in the U.S., are turning the U.S. into a mediator between the parties and, inevitably, into an arbiter between Israeli and Syrian positions.

Such a development, although initiated at Barak's insistence and seemingly pleasing to the president of the United States, will not contribute to strengthening the ties between Israel and the U.S.

It is likely to lead to U.S. economic and military assistance to Syria, a country that is the very antithesis of everything that America stands for. This is not the way to assure Israel's interests in the negotiations with Syria

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