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Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2000 /5 Shevat, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Arguing About Peace

Intolerance for dissent shadows the Golan debate -- ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER Ehud Barak’s returned home this week from his extended visit to West Virginia without an agreement with Syria in hand. As most experts had predicted in advance, negotiations with the regime of Syrian dictator Hafez Assad are not exactly a picnic in the mountains for the Israelis.

Although the broad outline of an agreement was clear to all those involved long before the Syrian foreign minister sat down with Barak and American mediators, the gaps between the two countries’ positions are still considerable.

Published details of a “working paper” drawn up by the Americans to help prod the two sides revealed that Syria is still balking at “normalization” of relations with Israel even after it is handed the Golan and a peace treaty is signed. It is becoming clear that while the Syrians are finally prepared to accept the Golan Heights from Israel, they are not interested in any other dealings with Israel, including open borders, tourism or trade.

No one can tell what the final outcome will be, but one shouldn’t underestimate the desire of the United States to achieve an accord. Especially since President Clinton is desperate for a peace deal to showcase as his legacy in the waning days of his presidency.

Meanwhile, back in Israel, the debate over the surrender of the Golan is gathering steam. Opponents of such a hand-over staged a huge rally in Tel Aviv on Monday and the latest polls show that the majority of the Israeli public is currently against giving up the area to Syria. That may well change once a signed deal is in hand, but there is no question that Israel is deeply divided over this issue.

Though Barak can count on the support of a clear majority of American Jews to back his policies — as can any government of Israel — American Jewry will not be unanimous on this issue either. The organized American Jewish world has long tilted toward the land-for-peace camp in Israel, but sympathizers with the anti-Golan-hand-over camp will not be silent.

The significance of the support of American Jewry should not be overlooked. American Jews will have no votes in a referendum should Barak present one to the Israeli people for approval. But whether or not he wins such a vote, he also needs to win votes in Congress to make his plans for peace with Syria a reality.

Both Israel and Syria are expecting huge payouts in aid as a reward for signing a peace treaty. While initial estimates were said to be in the range of $17 billion for Israel alone, it now appears that the real number needed for both Israel and Syria will be far more.

Tens of billions in U.S. aid will be needed for relocating Israeli army bases, new high-tech arms supplies for Israel, as well as resettling the 17,000 Jews currently living on the Golan. Reportedly, the U.S. will also be expected to provide the bankrupt Syrian economy with massive aid and help re-build the Syrian armed forces which have suffered since the demise of their Soviet sponsors. And that doesn’t even include the costs of maintaining U.S. peacekeeping troops on the Golan — a dubious proposal for guaranteeing the peace which has resurfaced this month.

Congress will not want to be the obstacle to peace, but billions for Syria — a country whose major exports to the world have been terrorism and drugs — will be a difficult sell. It is far from a given that this Congress, or any future one, will contemplate allocating tens of billions in an initial outlay to pay for the Israel-Syria deal. But without strong support from American Jewry, it is a certainty that it will not.

Though I take a dim view of American Jews setting themselves up as the arbiters of Israeli security policy, there can be no debate about the legitimacy of an American discussion over whether billions of U.S. dollars should be used to pay for these proposals.

Most American Jews will always err on the side of backing Barak, but American Jews have a right to express their opinions on these issues and no one ought to try to suppress dissent in the name of a mythic and unattainable Jewish consensus.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what some appear to want to do as the patterns of debate on the earlier Oslo peace deals are recurring.

Some opponents of Barak are characterizing his positions as contrary to Jewish religious law, while some of Barak’s supporters — including the U.S. Reform movement — appear to be taking the position that all those who oppose giving up the Golan are radical extremists who wish to create an atmosphere of hate. A statement issued on their behalf pays lip service to democracy but then goes on to accuse opponents — without citing any sources — of calling Barak a traitor. As if people like Natan Sharansky, who sits in Barak’s cabinet and sat on the podium of a demonstration of a quarter million Israelis this week protesting Barak’s policies, are representative of such sentiments.

The specter of the assassination of the late Yitzhak Rabin has been invoked by supporters of a Golan giveaway, not so much to inspire Jews to greater civility and understanding on the part of their opponents, but for the purpose of silencing those opponents.

The year ahead promises to be one of tough negotiations and bitter debate. Insofar as the debate about the Golan takes place among American Jewry, let us all resolve to adhere, above all, to a position of tolerance toward those with whom we may disagree.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin