U.S. to turn up the heat
on Syria after summit failure
Will back Israel's unilateral pullout from Lebanon
By Nitzan Horowitz, Aluf Benn and Gideon Alon
Ha'aretz Correspondents (28/3/2000)
As President Clinton headed back for Washington yesterday from his Geneva summit meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad, officials in Washington were struggling to conceal their frustration with the Syrians, whom they blame for the continued impasse. In Jerusalem, U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross met with Ehud Barak, and told the prime minister that the Americans have yet to throw in the towel, and will continue with efforts to bring about a resumption of Israel-Syria talks.
Officially, the Clinton administration says it retains hopes that the Israel-Syrian talks will resume, adding that Egypt's President Mubarak (who will visit the White House today) should provide help. Yet disappointment emanating from the Geneva discussion casts a pall over this official Washington pronouncement. The Geneva meeting confirmed American fears concerning Assad's disposition. The Syrian leader proved to be rigid, and non-responsive to the opportunity provided to him by Barak and Clinton.
In the wake of the Geneva fall-out, calls are being made in Washington for Clinton to step up pressure against the Syrians, both by putting a focus on the Palestinian track, and by openly supporting Israel's planned pull-out from Lebanon. Washington is considered likely to accede. Referring to the Lebanon withdrawal, U.S. officials say that after Israel fulfills its obligations under UN Resolution 425, Syria will face new circumstances and tougher American policy.
The U.S. is concerned that Syria might reply with violence to a unilateral IDF pull-out. To forestall escalation in the north, the U.S. is expected to demonstrate full support for the Israeli withdrawal policy, warning Syria that it will be held to blame if violent clashes occur near the northern border.
The Americans will inform Assad that the Grapes of Wrath understandings, which allow some types of Hezbollah activity, will be rendered void by an Israeli withdrawal. The Americans will warn that any border-crossing action taken by Hezbollah or other groups affiliated with Syria will be considered international terror. Should Israel decide to respond to any such unwarranted incursion, the U.S. will provide it full international support.
As part of the campaign to step-up pressure against Syria, the United States is in coming weeks likely to ask Arab leaders to support Israel's pull-out from Lebanon. This topic will be raised during Clinton's White House discussion today with Mubarak.
In Jerusalem meetings, U.S. envoy Dennis Ross briefed Prime Minister Barak about the details of the Clinton-Assad summit. Ross met with Barak for a second time last night, and was expected to leave Israel soon afterward.
According to a political official in Jerusalem, "Ross's reports didn't alter the impression which Barak formed after speaking with Clinton when the summit ended."
The Israeli official explained that Barak "hasn't given up hope, and believes that talks with Syria could resume, though he knows this prospect doesn't appear too bright."
In the aftermath of the Geneva failure, Barak is reportedly planning to put preparations for the unilateral Lebanon withdrawal in full swing. To this end, Foreign Minister David Levy is expected to meet soon with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to discuss the deployment of a UN peace-keeping force in Lebanon. Levy, who has recently appeared skeptical about prospects of peace with Syria, declared yesterday: "It's possible that Syria's moves are a tactic aiming to subordinate Israel. We'll wait patiently, hoping that prudence will gain the upper hand there. Negotiations would be a farce, were we supposed to comply with the ultimatum-like demands made by Syria."
Responding to the Geneva failure yesterday, Barak declared that Israel won't sign an agreement harmful to its vital national interests. "We will make sure that Israel's interests are protected," he declared.
The prime minister said that Israel will not sign an agreement with the Syrians, or with the Palestinians, unless he is sure that "it strengthens Israel." He promised that Israel will continue with efforts to resume talks with Syria - "we haven't closed the door," he declared.