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Mideast Peace Price Often U.S. Cash

The Associated Press,
Monday, Jan. 3, 2000; 2:14 a.m. EST


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's bid to mediate peace between Syria and Israel has drawn wide bipartisan praise in Congress. But the roar of applause that would greet success might fade once the tab is tallied.

Estimates in the region put the potential pricetag at up to $30 billion, ten times what Israel now gets annually in U.S. assistance. And at $3 billion, Israel is the largest single foreign aid recipient.

Even the most conservative estimate, of about $10 billion, rivals the entire U.S. annual foreign aid budget, around $13 billion.

With talks resuming Monday in Shepherdstown, W.Va., little has been said about what an Israel-Syria peace agreement might cost American taxpayers.

Nor is it yet clear how the administration would get around the fact that, as one of seven nations branded as supporting terrorism, Syria is presently ineligible for most U.S. assistance.

There's little doubt that Congress, currently out of session, will eventually be asked to foot most of the bill if an Israel-Syria deal is reached.

"There has not been any agreement that has been made in the Middle East that hasn't, in some way, meant that we would be giving some kind of assistance," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters even as she declined to answer questions on cost.

Rep. Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, thinks the higher estimates are "incredibly inflated."

Even so, Gejdenson said that, at this stage, potential costs are a secondary consideration. "The opportunities for peace aren't there forever," he said.

The United States has a history of spending billions for peace in the Middle East. Just before Congress left for the holidays, it approved $1.8 billion in special aid for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to carry out the 1998 Wye River peace accord.

Egypt, rewarded two decades ago for becoming the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, is now the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel, getting about $2.2 billion a year.

When Israel evacuated the Sinai Peninsula as part of that accord, the United States gave Israel $3 billion in special aid - some of it to compensate 7,000 Israeli settlers forced to move. Some of the families were given as much as $500,000. Nearly 18,000 Israelis live in the Golan Heights, which Syria wants back as part of any peace agreement. Israel captured the strategic highlands in the 1967 war.

The Republican-led Congress has been stingy about foreign aid, although there is also a long tradition of generosity towards Israel - most pronounced during election years.

However, that generosity could be strained by huge requests.

"It will be difficult extracting the funds necessary," said Tom Mann, an analyst at the Brookings Institution who studies Congress. He said a lot would depend on how well Israeli's receive a peace plan.

Polls indicate Israelis are almost evenly divided over whether to trade the Golan Heights for peace with Syria. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has pledged a referendum if such a deal is struck.

According to Israeli legislators and newspaper reports, Israel might seek $20 billion to $30 billion from the United States to help seal a deal. Barak once estimated it would take about $10 billion to defend Israel without the heights. Beyond the issue of compensation for settlers, Israel is likely to request sophisticated military equipment and intelligence-sharing to compensate for the loss of its listening posts in the heights.

Providing for the Syrian component of the package would be problematic because of the legal ban on assistance to countries on the State Department's list of nations that support terrorism.

Some analysts have suggested the simplest course might be to assemble a package in which other countries, including Japan and European allies, shoulder the Syrian portion. Syria's making peace with Israel itself might prompt a reassessment of its terrorism designation.

Still, providing billions to resettle Golan Heights settlers might generate the most U.S. resistance.

"What we see is the various parties to the Arab-Israeli dispute getting in line with their hands out for American dollars," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Cato Institute. "I don't think that benefits the people in these countries."


(c) Copyright 2000 The Associated Press


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