There's a debate bubbling up on the sidelines of the Arab-Israeli peace process: should U.S. troops be sent to the region to monitor a possible peace agreement between Syria and Israel? Judging from a poll commissioned by the Middle East Quarterly and carried out on election day last week, the American public is saying an emphatic no.
Here's the background: after four decades of nearly unmitigated hostility toward Israel, the government in Damascus agreed in 1991 to sit down to talk peace with the Jewish state. Although the talks hit snags over the course of the next three years, they did progress to the point that the two sides are now within sight of an agreement.
The Israeli leadership has tacitly indicated that, subject to the results of a referendum, it is prepared to return virtually all of the land seized from Syria in 1967. While the two parties disagree on the timetable of withdrawal, a compromise here seems possible. The same goes for security arrangements (Jerusalem calls for mutual reductions and Damascus wants symmetrical demilitarization), but again these differences do not seem insurmountable.
The only serious issue that divides them concerns normalization of relations: what will peace look like? The Syria foreign minister has offered Israel a "warm peace" and President Hafiz al-Asad himself has spoken of "peaceful, normal relations" with Israel. At the same time, Asad refuses to say anything more about normalization.
Will it include, as Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin insists, "an Israeli Embassy in Damascus, a Syrian Embassy in Israel, an Egged [i.e., Israeli] bus traveling to Aleppo, Israeli tourists in Homs, Israeli ships at Tartus, El Al planes landing, and commercial and cultural ties - everything, and in both directions"? Asad won't say. He promises to reveal the nature of peace following a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and not earlier. This the Israelis reject as completely inadequate, and so the negotiations lumber on.
Two facts have always to be kept in mind about these talks. First, over five decades, the Syrians have consistently been Israel's most ferocious and consistent opponent, so that Israelis are more suspicious of Syrians than any other Arabs. Second, the Israelis will be giving up a tangible asset (the Golan Heights, a great strategic position) for nothing but words in return. These two factors render Israelis understandably nervous about the course ahead. Indeed, the Likud Party and even some members of Rabin's own Labor Party don't like the shape of the impending deal with Damascus. They are likely to put up a strenuous opposition.
That's were U.S. troops come in. Hoping to make the deal more acceptable to the Israeli electorate, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has raised the notion of placing an American force on the Golan Heights to monitor the agreement with Syria. The Asad regime likes this idea as well and the Clinton Administration has indicated it is ready to do its part.
Trouble is, the American people appear to be in no mood for such a commitment. In a survey of one thousand voters, the polling firm of Fabrizio, McLaughlin, and Associates found that by a ratio of 3.6 to one, Americans dislike the idea of sending troops to the Golan Heights. (The exact figures are 64.3 percent against and 17.9 percent in favor, with the remainder not knowing or not replying.)
When reminded about previous American experiences with peace-keeping missions, the thumbs down vote for this mission increases slightly, to almost 4-to-1 against. (Here the numbers are 64.8 percent against and 16.5 percent in favor.)
The poll also reveals that, by a 4-to-1 ratio, American opinion wants this issue to be approved up by Congress before U.S. soldiers pack their bags for the Golan Heights. (70 percent favor this, 17.1 percent think it unnecessary).
These strong opinions appear to be in synchrony with the new, Republican Congress and with the unease expressed in a recent report published by the Washington-based Center for Security Policy. If there is one thing that separates Republicans from Democrats on foreign policy issues these days, it is a close attention to American national interests: no troops and no money unless it's clear that they benefit the U.S. taxpayer. This is known to be the view of Jesse Helms, the presumptive chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and likely to be that of Benjamin Gilman, his counterpart in the House.
The message is clear: Messrs. Clinton, Rabin, and Asad have to make a very compelling case if they are to get their way and station American troops between Israel and Syria.