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Problems with current U.S. policy.

Key Problems

* For more than three decades, the U.S. has tolerated Israel's ongoing violations of international law and human rights in the occupied Golan.

* U.S. policy has refused to question Israel's exaggerated security concerns regarding its potential withdrawal from Syrian territory.

* The U.S., in backing most of Israel's demands, has gone well beyond the requirements of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, long presented as the basis of the negotiations.

The United States convened peace talks between Syria and Israel in 1991 in Madrid as part of a broader peace process initiated after the Gulf War. Israel broke off the talks in 1996 and resumed negotiations in late 1999. The two sides came close to an agreement in early 2000, but talks broke down regarding the demarcation of the border. The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon, without any apparent U.S. objections, has refused to seriously consider any withdrawal and has not returned to the bargaining table.

The U.S. has poured billions of dollars worth of economic and military assistance to Israel since it seized the Golan Heights in 1967, in part to challenge Syria and its demand for the restoration of its conquered territory. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to call for the end of Syria's economic boycott of Israel and the normalization of relations while failing to insist upon a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan or even an end to its human rights abuses and the withdrawal of its illegal settlements.

Unlike in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the vast majority of the Arab population in the Golan region was expelled following the Israeli conquest, thus relieving Israel of many of the burdens of occupation. The Syrians expelled from the Golan in 1967 (counting descendants) now number as many as 300,000 and remain refugees in their own country. Only five villages remain, consisting of members of the Druze minority, who engaged in Gandhian-style nonviolent resistance against the occupation in the early 1980s, only to be brutally suppressed by Israeli forces without any apparent U.S. objections.

Few Americans recognize that Syrians are at least as frightened of Israel as Israelis are of Syria. The Israelis have on several occasions bombed Damascus, though the Syrians have never successfully attacked Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Indeed, Damascus currently remains within range of Israeli artillery. The Israelis, meanwhile, insist that if they withdraw their forces from the Golan, demilitarization must occur exclusively on the Syrian side.

Virtually all official U.S. statements on security issues have focused exclusively on Israeli security concerns, often reiterating that between 1948 and 1967, Syrian gunners would periodically lob shells from the Golan Heights into civilian areas within Israel. However, according to UN peacekeeping forces stationed along the border during that period, Israel engaged in far more cease-fire violations and inflicted far greater civilian casualties than did Syria. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan acknowledged in his diaries in 1967 that there was no clear strategic rationale for seizing the territories, and he later admitted to an Israeli reporter that the Golan was seized out of greed for its waters and fertile farmland. Many contemporary Israeli strategic analysts agree.

Without Soviet support, Syrian military power has fallen dramatically while Israel's has been further strengthened, in large measure with U.S. assistance. Indeed, in this era of medium-range missiles, controlling high ground such as the Golan would not yield Syria a significant military advantage. Despite this--and despite Israel's unprecedented military advantage--successive Israeli governments have convinced much of the Israeli public and Israel's supporters in the United States that retaining this territory is critical to Israel's survival.

The U.S. continues to include Syria on its list of "terrorist states," even though the State Department has admitted they have no evidence of the Syrian government being linked to any terrorist attacks since 1986. Being on the list denies Syria access to foreign aid and certain high-technology imports. Washington has offered to remove Syria from the list only if it makes peace with Israel largely on U.S.-Israeli terms.

Given that Israel is widely viewed in the U.S. as a pro-Western democracy and that Syria is a dictatorship that once had close ties with the Soviets, there has been an understandable bias in the U.S. toward Israel in the peace process. This perspective is compounded by the fact that for most of Israel's history, the Syrians refused to negotiate, financed terrorist groups that attacked Israeli civilians, and sought Israel's destruction. As a result, few Americans recognize the fact that, in the current negotiations, Syria's position is actually more moderate than Israel's, since Syria is more consistent with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, or "land for peace," which the U.S. pledged would be the basis of the talks when they opened in Madrid in 1991.

The U.S. claims it is being even-handed with Israel and Syria. Yet even taking the "middle ground" between the two parties would not be reasonable, since Syria's demand for full withdrawal from the Golan is backed by the explicit edict of a legally binding document on which the peace process is based, while the Israeli demands not yet met by Syria have no such legal basis.

Currently, Congress is considering bipartisan legislation to impose tough sanctions on Syria with the stated aim of halting Syria's alleged support for terrorism. The sanctions would also target what the congressional sponsors refer to as Syria's "occupation" of Lebanon. In addition, the sanctions would aim to stop Syria's development of weapons of mass destruction and to end its importation of Iraqi oil. In doing so, the congressional sponsors of the sanctions measure hope to "hold Syria accountable for its role in the Middle East." Given Israel's sizable arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons, its repressive occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory, and widespread attacks against civilians, such a sanctions policy would add more weight to the criticism that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is not even-handed.

Stephen Zunes <stephen@coho.org> serves as Middle East editor for Foreign Policy In Focus. He is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He has met with both Israeli and Syrian foreign ministers and has visited both sides of the Golan.
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Author:Zunes, Stephen
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 20, 2002
Words:1058
Previous Article:The peace process between Israel and Syria.
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