Israel is already looking for U.S. taxpayers to foot at least part of the bill estimated at up to $18 billion for an Israel-Syria deal on the Golan Heights to be negotiated in talks starting tomorrow in Washington.
That sum includes $10 billion to relocate 17,000 Jewish settlers who will have to be moved from the Heights when they are returned to Syria, and $8 billion to relocate Israeli military bases.
Analysts in Washington say the cost of a comprehensive peace in the region involving Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians will run much higher perhaps as much as $100 billion over several years.
Delegations headed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa were due in Washington today for the highest-level talks in decades, with both sides saying agreement is possible within a matter of months.
“Any Israeli-Syrian peace treaty will require heavy financial outlays,” said Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval in a telephone interview yesterday.
“On the other hand a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty will make a tremendous contribution to the vital American interest of stability in the Middle East.”
Israeli Finance Minister Avraham Shohat said Sunday that Israel will need help paying the costs of withdrawing from the Golan Heights.
“Everybody understands that the state of Israel cannot by itself support such a process with the kind of investment it requires,” Mr. Shohat said on Israeli public radio.
While Congress has paid more than $5 billion a year since the early 1980s to support the Israel-Egypt Camp David peace treaty, this year Congress balked at paying $500 million to the Israeli-Palestinian Wye River peace agreement.
The funding eventually was found but Congress has proved reluctant to give money to former guerrilla fighters now running a quasi-authoritarian state in Gaza and the West Bank. And it has been hesitant to fund President Clinton’s foreign policy initiatives across the board.
State Department spokesman James Foley denied yesterday that the Clinton administration was ready to offer such large sums for peace on the Golan.
But, he said, “We have every reason to believe that the Congress would want, together with the administration, to see that the United States would do what it could to make sure that those accords were a success.”
A Republican congressional aide said there is wide support in Congress for Middle East peace but that legislators are unwilling to sign off on promises made without consulting House and Senate leaders.
“This administration has a history of promising money when [Mr. Clinton] goes out, and dumping it on Congress’ doorstep,” said the aide. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was dangling something” to bring Syria and Israel to the bargaining table.
The aide reported that Friday, during a briefing by the influential Washington Institute for Near East Policy, participants suggested that the total cost of a comprehensive peace in the region could be as much as $100 billion. The cash would go to:
1) Direct European and U.S. foreign aid for infrastructure and social services.
2) Writing off foreign debts as was done to bring Jordan into a peace treaty with Israel.
3) Private investment, often with U.S. government insurance.
4) Moving Israeli settlers from the Golan into Israel proper.
5) Rebuilding Israeli military and intelligence-gathering posts within Israel.
6) Possible relocation or compensation for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.
7) Protecting, diverting, sharing or supplementing scarce water resources in the region.
Mr. Shoval noted in his interview that “after the Camp David accords and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, quite substantial amounts of money were put into the game by the United States and Israel.”
While even larger amounts may be needed at the end game of the Arab-Israeli peace process, “they should be available,” he said.
Mr. Foley and Mr. Shoval both said it was premature to talk of relocating settlers and bases.
However Syria has repeatedly said it would only make peace with Israel once it gets a pledge to have all of the Golan Heights returned. The land was taken in the 1967 war when Israel also seized, in six days of fighting, the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan.
Under Camp David, Israel returned all of Sinai to Egypt in the early 1980s in return for a peace treaty. Under the Oslo accords, Israel relinquished Gaza and part of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.
The talks this week between Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharaa, expected to take place at Blair House tomorrow and Thursday, will set the stage for detailed negotiations on peace. The site of future talks has not been announced.
One of the most difficult issues is whether the Israelis will withdraw to the 1967 armistice line, which gives Syria a short border on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s major source of fresh water.
Israel wants to withdraw only to the 1928 border set during the British Mandate of Palestine. That gives Syria land to within 10 yards of the sea but not actually touching the water.
Mr. Barak has publicly said Syrian troops “will not wash their feet in the Galilee” while he is leader of Israel.
An Israeli official who asked not to be identified said that the talks are taking place under a cloud of ambiguity.
“President Clinton said that the talks would resume where they left off in 1994, but he did not include a statement of what the Syrians have been saying: that there would be a return to the 1967 armistice line” giving Syria access to the Galilee.
Also at issue is territory at the confluence of the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers, which Syria occupied in 1948 and lost in 1967, but which Israel claims under the 1928 borders.