Commentary Magazine


Land for Cash?

Twenty years ago, during his first term in office, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin struck what was probably the greatest bargain for Israel in the history of the Arab-Israeli peace process. During the summer of 1975—with Gerald Ford in the White House and Henry Kissinger as his Secretary of State—the U.S. and Israel had been wrestling with the question of whether the Rabin government would cede the strategic keys of the Sinai Peninsula, the Giddi and Mitla passes, in exchange for something less than nonbelligerency from the Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat. (No one thought at the time that in little more than two years Sadat would be visiting Jerusalem and offering full peace.)

It was during these negotiations for what became the Second Sinai Disengagement Agreement (or Sinai II) that the basic Israeli-American paradigm for peacemaking was set. The U.S. understood the asymmetry of the proposed exchange. Israel was giving up tangible territorial assets that could not be recovered except in an act of war; its Arab interlocutor was making a political commitment that could be easily reversed or diluted. Hence, the U.S. would interject itself as a critical factor in Israeli calculations of the risks involved in territorial withdrawal, and would offer the tangibles which were missing in the direct exchange between Israel and the Arab side.

If Israel went through with the arrangement, the U.S. would, it promised, significantly upgrade the Israeli Air Force. If previously Israel flew A-4M Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms based on the technology of the 1960’s, from now on it would be receiving P-15’s and F-16’s that would assure its superiority well into the 1980’s. Other advanced weapons were committed as well. Ultimately Israel took the planes and gave up the passes.

The Rabin government did not thereby just obtain a technological leap for the Israeli Air Force; the new package was underpinned by a massive increase in American aid. In the years just prior to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, U.S. military and economic assistance (loans and grants) to Israel averaged about $800 million per year. Aid surged in 1974 to an unprecedented $4.5 billion as a result of war costs. It then began to revert to nearly prewar levels in 1975, coming down to just over a billion dollars. But thanks to Sinai II, U.S. aid to Israel increased by more than 200 percent, to $3.4 billion. From then on, aid never dropped below the $2-billion level. Clearly a new diplomatic pattern had been set based not only on “land for peace” but also on “land for cash.”

Other innovations were introduced to grease the gears of diplomacy. In exchange for those Sinai passes, Israel obtained a host of diplomatic assurances that were intended to protect its interests in future negotiations with the Palestinians and with Syria. More importantly, Sinai II was the first time Washington agreed to put in American monitors of an Arab-Israeli disengagement line. The small Sinai field mission that was dispatched to the passes consisted of civilian technicians rather than uniformed military personnel. Nonetheless it added another instrument to the U.S.-Israeli peace paradigm of the 1970’s: the deployment of Americans as an assurance to Israel as it withdrew from disputed territory.

Undergirding the commitment of funding and peacekeepers was yet another essential aspect of this peace model: the strong U.S. interest in seeing UN Security Council Resolution 242 (the land-for-peace formula) fully implemented.

Here the Soviet factor played a central role. Prior to 1973, the U.S. periodically coordinated its positions on the Middle East with the Soviet Union in anticipation of a superpower settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This led Washington to adopt harsh positions on territorial withdrawal, like the Rogers Plan, that were not far from those pushed for by Moscow. After 1973, the U.S. was driven in its Arab-Israeli diplomacy by the dangers of superpower escalation from regional conflicts. Either way, the cold war hovered over the substance and urgency of American diplomacy in the Middle East.

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All this would belong to a study of diplomatic history, except that subsequent administrations sought to imitate, and in some cases intensify, the model of Sinai II. Thus, for example, total American aid to Israel shot up again in the wake of the 1978 Camp David accords. So, too, after the signing of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles in 1993, President Bill Clinton made available to Israel an export version of the F-15E, the F-15I. Fifty used F-16A aircraft were also sold to Israel at a discount price.

The hard question that both countries face at present, however, is whether this approach can still work. Can a diplomatic model fashioned in the 1970’s be applied in the international and domestic environment of the 1990’s? The question is particularly troublesome because the focus of American policy in the year ahead will be a task far more daunting than it faced in Sinai—to offset the risks that Israel is preparing to undertake by a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This involves three separate issues: the sort of aid-and-technology package Israel might require; what kind of peacekeeping role for the U.S. is likely to be sought; and whether the U.S. has a real interest in vigorously pushing for a full Israeli withdrawal.

Despite the growing use of ballistic missiles, wars in the Middle East are still decided by the movement of land armies. Since 1967, the Golan Heights have provided Israel with a powerful topographical advantage over Syria, both in the area of early-warning and in the event of actual armored warfare against Syria’s quantitatively superior standing ground forces. And since the Gulf war, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria has been putting as much stress on the modernization of his armored divisions as he has on the procurement of North Korean missile systems.

When Israel took the Golan at the end of the Six-Day War of 1967, it was barely outnumbered because it had already mobilized its reserves and won on other fronts. But today, without any Israeli reserve mobilization, estimates of Syria’s numerical superiority in active divisions along the Golan front vary from 3.5 to 1 to as much as 12 to 1. (Indeed, looking at armor alone in October 1973, 177 Israeli tanks stood against 1,400 Syrian tanks in the opening round of the Yom Kippur War.) Given the extreme difficulty of reaching security arrangements that adequately address these asymmetries, enhanced American aid to Israel is likely to be pivotal for clinching a Syrian-Israeli deal involving a full withdrawal from the Golan.

The notion that security arrangements could be designed to make such a withdrawal safe for Israel was first broached by some Israeli reserve generals during the 1980’s. They argued that the precedent of Sinai could be followed in the Golan—Israel could safely give up sovereignty by putting in place limited-forces zones and demilitarization areas that neutralized any offensive threats to its borders.

In Sinai, however, security arrangements were implemented in a territory reaching some 120 miles in width. Because the Golan is maximally only eighteen miles wide, the security arrangements proposed by these Israeli reserve generals—and now advanced by the present Rabin government—are very different from those in Sinai. First, since demilitarization of eighteen miles is virtually worthless in modern mechanized war, any limited-forces zones will have to extend beyond the Golan itself and deep into southern Syria. Second, cutbacks in Syria’s standing armored divisions will have to be made. And third, Israel will have to continue manning its early-warning stations even if they sit on territory that will eventually come under Syrian sovereignty.

There is no precedent in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty for such intrusive Israeli security demands. Israel did not retain its great Sinai early-warning station at Umm Khashiba; it never created armor-exclusion zones west of the Suez Canal; it demilitarized only territory that it returned, not any areas that were close to the heart of the Egyptian state in the Nile Valley. By sharp contrast, the security arrangements Israel wants east of the Golan would bump right into the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

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Rabin is thus likely to obtain only a very small part of these demands in negotiations with Syria. If he fails to cut back the offensive strength of the Syrians, he will have to balance their power with increased assistance from the U.S. And if Assad refuses to permit Israeli early-warning teams to stay on the Golan, then Israel will probably have to seek some advanced technological systems that facilitate reconnaissance of Syria from the air.

True, Israeli defense experts have warned against such air-based warning, partly because of the harsh weather conditions in the Golan. Nonetheless, the Israeli press has reported interest on the part of the Israeli military in the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS)—a plane that can pick up the movement of hostile targets on the ground, at great ranges.

If Israel wanted to go this route, it would need more than one of these expensive planes. To give 24-hour-a-day coverage of Syria, a number of backup planes for rotation would be required at all times; these backup planes would also be critical because of the vulnerability of such reconnaissance aircraft in Israel’s narrow airspace to long-range surface-to-air missiles in the early stages of a war. No country would want to be dependent on one eye that could be easily blinded.

Even if the Israeli military had the best surveillance of Syria, however, it would still require a strong defensive capability on the ground in the event that intelligence material was misinterpreted and a warning failure ensued. Despite detailed American satellite coverage of the movement of Iraqi forces during the second half of July 1990, the U.S. failed to prepare for a full Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, due to the mistaken assumption that all Saddam Hussein was after was the Rumeilla oil field. In 1973, Israel had no shortage of data about what was happening on the Arab side; it did have a mistaken understanding of the significance of the preparations that were observed.

What would a high-tech defense line for Israel without the Golan Heights look like? Israel might pick some of the more successful state-of-the art technologies from the Gulf war, such as long-range artillery with submunitions or attack helicopters carrying stand-off missiles. But like the latest surveillance aircraft, these are extremely costly weapons systems. How much would be enough? According to the Gulf War Air Power Survey, the U.S. deployed a total of 274 of its best AH-64 Apache tank-killing helicopters against a total of 3,475 Iraqi tanks in the Kuwait theater of operations. The latest Jaffee Center Military Balance states that Israel has 42 such helicopters that would have to face about 4,900 Syrian tanks.

In other words, a lot more money is going to have to be spent if anyone has any intention of replicating the battlefield conditions of the Gulf war on the Golan Heights. The figure most commonly cited for the size of the compensation package that Israel will seek from the U.S. in exchange for the Golan Heights comes to no less than $5 billion. When taken together with the $3 billion Israel receives in security ($1.8 billion) and economic ($1.2 billion) assistance, the total aid level to Israel could reach $8 billion.

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Some believe that if this is the cost of a Syrian-Israeli peace, the money will be found. But most evidence points in the opposite direction. Senator Mitch McConnell, the new Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Operations subcommittee that deals with foreign aid, was actually asked by Akiva Eldar of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz about the $5-billion figure for the Golan Heights. McConnell, who is a strong supporter of Israel, replied: “I’m interested in the U.S. helping to secure peace in the Middle East, and I’m ready to support certain aid, but $5 billion is out of the question.”

The Senate Republicans are not the only people in Washington suggesting that “land for cash” is in trouble. McConnell’s Democratic predecessor on the Foreign Operations subcommittee, Senator Patrick Leahy, told National Public Radio on September 14, 1993, just one day after the Israel-PLO agreement was signed:

I would only note that we’re already spending $5 billion for the Camp David countries. Actually, it’s considerably more than $5 billion if everything else was put in. The American taxpayer cannot spend more money in the Middle East [emphasis added].

More recently, Thomas McNamara, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, told Defense News:

Camp David is not a model for us to try to replicate. In these days of decreased funding, we are not about to create Camp David-type arrangements. We will do what is necessary and within our means. But the peace process is not a payoff process.

The main lesson flowing from these various considerations is that it is not enough to get a group of Israeli generals together to design a scheme for Israel’s security without the Golan Heights. Any such scheme has to meet some tough political and economic criteria. Apart from the question of whether this one is acceptable to the Syrians (would Assad ever permit his capital to be demilitarized?), fundamental issues remain. On what technologies is the new plan based and what kind of price tag are we talking about?

Even if the money is available, expensive American technology does not in all circumstances neutralize superior numbers of Russian-equipped forces. General Norman Schwarzkopf did not fight the Iraqi army with the same numerical disadvantage that Israel suffers on the Golan: he unleashed American airpower for six weeks in order to level the playing field by smashing a large proportion of Iraqi armor. Only then, with quantitative (as well as qualitative) superiority on his side, did he launch his ground campaign. It is important to remember that territory and population are constants of military power; technological advantages are only effective until countermeasures are developed.

Rabin knows that Israel cannot afford a six-week air campaign, but he will still seek technological compensation for the loss of territory. The great danger is that, having committed himself so deeply to a withdrawal from the Golan, he may proceed on the assumption that this compensation is in the pipeline, only to discover when it is too late that the necessary increases in U.S. aid are not forthcoming.

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Money and technology were not the only instruments of the 1970’s peace paradigm; it also included the deployment of Americans, albeit as observers, along Israel’s southern border. In 1982 the Begin government went one step further than placing civilian technicians in the Sinai passes; once Israel completed its Sinai withdrawal, it asked for and received a three-battalion uniformed peacekeeping presence called the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), which contained one American frontline infantry battalion as well as a civilian observer unit. Could this idea now be applied to the Golan Heights as well? What would be the size or mission of this presence?

Right now Rabin is only talking about replicating the Sinai MFO. Government statements refer to American “monitors” on the Golan Heights whose mission would be to verify that the provisions of the military annex of any Israeli-Syrian peace treaty were kept. In practical terms, monitors count tanks; they make sure that each side does not deploy, in a clearly demarcated limited-forces zone, any more armored vehicles than are specifically allotted by a peace agreement. Monitors do not engage in round-the-clock early-warning that might look deeply into the territory of the other side. Their inspections are periodic and geographically delimited: they may occur twice a month or at any frequency that the parties decide.

While only monitors are being sought in Israel’s opening position, there are reasons to think that this mission would considerably expand. First, the requirements of the U.S. military establishment would likely alter the character of any American Golan deployment. Of course, if matters were left to the Pentagon alone, it would probably seek to avoid a long-term commitment of its dwindling forces. In an era in which the standing forces of the U.S. Army are being slashed down to ten divisions by 1999, even token deployments can bite deeply when the needs for troop rotation or training are taken into account.

But should the U.S. Army be ordered by the White House to make a Golan force commitment, considerations of security could easily drive up the size of the force. In Sinai, the American battalion is deployed in a southern sector that extends from Eilat southward to Sharm el-Sheikh. American soldiers are not sitting in northern and central Sinai along the major routes of advance that the Egyptian army would use if it wanted to attack Israel. But in the narrower Golan, it would be much more difficult to keep the Americans “out of harm’s way.” They would be in close proximity to likely routes of advance in any Israeli-Syrian conflict.

American military planners would try to avoid exposing their soldiers to situations for which they were inadequately equipped. Or they might protest against attempts to give them a narrowly defined mission when strategic risks called for more robust preparations—as was the case in Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993. In the Golan, such considerations would drive American planners to seek at least the minimal force necessary for self-defense in armored warfare. According to a December 1993 study prepared for the Department of Defense by the RAND corporation, that would be a 5,000-man mechanized or armored brigade.

Second, expanding the role of the American force might serve as a tempting way to break any Syrian-Israeli deadlock over security arrangements. If at a future Camp David summit with Clinton and Assad, Rabin were to insist on keeping extra-territorial early-warning stations, the Syrians would resist. But rather than let the negotiations fail, Clinton might well propose putting American forces in Israel’s early-warning positions. This would be considerably cheaper than buying Israel a whole fleet of JSTARS aircraft.

Alternatively, if Rabin could not obtain deep demilitarization of southern Syria or cutbacks in its standing army, a more robust American tripwire force might be offered to give Israel the security that it had failed to obtain directly from the Syrians. An armored American presence on the Golan, moreover, might help Rabin market a Golan withdrawal to a wary Israeli public. Monitors on the model of the Sinai MFO would not offer such assurance. The American contingent in the MFO is made up of only light infantry with little or no anti-tank capability. If Egyptian forces moved en masse into Sinai, the U.S. mission would not be to stop them but rather to observe and report. A duplicate of the MFO on the Golan would thus leave Israel insecure. On the other hand, a powerful deterrent force—or so some argue—would address the strong Israeli fears about the Golan pullout.

In short, the negotiating process over the Golan Heights is likely to make demands on the U.S. that are very different from the Sinai case. Yet these demands would come at a time when Washington was least prepared to meet them.

Regardless of the actual size of the force, an American presence on the Golan Heights would probably have to be tied to some kind of American security guarantee to Israel. During the cold war, when Washington was aggressively setting up new alliances around the periphery of the Soviet Union, such security guarantees made a certain sense for small states like Israel. But the U.S. in the post-cold-war era is in a process of contraction. Forward-deployed military forces are being brought back from Europe and the Far East, and America is trying to get its allies to accept a more equitable share of the worldwide defense burden. To seek American guarantees for Israel now entails running against the grain of contemporary history.

So, too, does the idea of putting U.S. troops on the Golan Heights. This idea is controversial not because Likud sympathizers in Washington oppose it (which is what some in the Rabin government imagine), but because it is so out of step with many current trend lines. Even before the debate on the Golan got started, Republican leaders like Senators Bob Dole and Don Nickles were challenging the Clinton administration’s ambitious worldwide peacekeeping plans. They were able to turn the administration around as the public mood on peacekeeping changed in the aftermath of the October 1993 killing of eighteen U.S. Army Rangers in Somalia. The new mood led Congressman Lee Hamilton to confess in March 1994: “If the Bosnians signed an agreement today, and the President came up tomorrow to ask us for troops, he wouldn’t get them.”

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Not only is there doubt about the applicability of the 1970’s peace paradigm today, there is also reason to question whether America’s motivation to implement it remains the same.

When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger engaged in shuttle diplomacy in 1975, moving the parties to a territorial settlement was a matter of real urgency from the standpoint of U.S. interests. The 1973 Yom Kippur War had ended with an American nuclear alert, indicating that regional wars between military clients of the U.S. and USSR could escalate to the level of superpower confrontation. Added to this security dimension was a world oil shortage that gave Saudi Arabia the leverage to press a host of political demands on the U.S., including Israel’s withdrawal from disputed territories.

Throughout the decade, U.S. policy oscillated between confrontation and collaboration with the Soviets in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kissinger clearly sought to reduce Soviet influence in the Middle East in general and in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations in particular. But that was not the aim of other American policy-makers. William Rogers, Kissinger’s immediate predecessor as Secretary of State, pursued the Two- and Four-Power Talks with the USSR in 1969-70; this drove Washington to stake out substantive positions on Israeli withdrawal that were not far from those of Moscow: in the famous Rogers Plan, the U.S. spoke for the first time about only “insubstantial alterations” in Israel’s pre-’67 borders. Later, Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, renewed this line of policy with the October 1977 U.S.-Soviet Joint Statement on the Middle East that further pulled American policy in the Soviet direction.

When the Soviets were given less consideration, however, American viewpoints on the extent of a required Israeli withdrawal were not always so harsh. For example, President Gerald Ford sent a letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on September 1, 1975 that stated:

The U.S. has not developed a final position on borders. Should it do so it will give great weight to Israel’s position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.

Even regarding the West Bank, U.S. officials have not always strictly thought that the “land-for-peace” option would have to be implemented; creative alternatives might be pursued. Thus George Shultz, who served as Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, confesses in his memoirs:

The words associated with that resolution [U.N. Resolution 242], “territory for peace,” would have to be treated with flexibility. . . . The many functions of government would have to be controlled in different ways, with total or mixed control following a variable pattern and distributed in different ways among Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians.

Now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, there is even less reason for the U.S. to go on pursuing a policy on Israeli withdrawal which was originally designed to take the Soviets into account. A third world war is not about to emanate from the Middle East; Arab states will not abandon their pro-Western orientation and run to become Soviet clients.

Some analysts, to be sure, think that Islamic fundamentalism has replaced the Soviet Union as the threat to be placated by an Israeli pullback to the 1967 lines. But Islamic fundamentalism clearly thrives separately from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel’s borders have nothing to do with the status of Algeria or even Egypt’s internal situation. If anything, the peace process has been accompanied by an increase in radical Islamic terror among the Palestinians.

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There are those who might claim that the U.S. has become largely irrelevant to the Arab-Israeli peace process—and indeed, the Rabin government circumvented the Clinton administration in closing deals with the PLO and Jordan through secret diplomacy. But should Israel and the Palestinians ever get to final-status talks, the U.S. will probably play a greater part, and its role is still clearly central to the Syrian track. What then should that role be now that the old paradigm of the 1970’s has become obsolete?

One thing it should not be is to press for arrangements that are simply unrealistic: an American/Canadian peace that Damascus has no intention of providing; a withdrawal from the Golan Heights that a majority of Israelis would view as a national tragedy and an irresponsible risk; a promise of billions of American dollars and the dispatch of American troops against the clear drift of American public opinion.

If, in spite of everything, a democratically-elected government in Israel decides to cede the Golan to Syria, that is its business. But such a government should not be driven by the assumption that it is doing what Washington has long sought and that it will therefore be handsomely rewarded. It should be driven by what the Syrians are offering in return.

What about the future of the peace process in general? Here, too, a new approach is called for. In the Persian Gulf, U.S. declaratory policy is based on protecting Gulf security; no one talks about starting with a peace process between Iraq and Kuwait. But in the Arab-Israeli sector the order of this basic logic has been reversed. First, Israel is called on to establish the criteria of peace (i.e., withdrawal) and then the U.S. and Israel try to address security. It is probably the Israelis rather than the Americans who have given this primacy to peace. Kissinger once noted, “Only a country that had never known peace could have attached so much importance to that phrase”; most wars, as he points out, have broken out between countries in a state of peace. Lately, Israel has been voicing a veritably millennial concept of peace, with rhetoric about a New Middle East. Remembering that security must precede peace would help bring the process back down to earth.

In the meantime, recognizing that “land for cash” has lost its relevance would inject a new and much-needed dose of realism into the calculations both of the U.S. and of Israel.

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