Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

Trading the Golan for the Pentagon

Jews are supposed to be brilliant. Well, you’d never know it judging by what the Israelis do sometimes. Take, for example, the current peace talks with Syria. While discussing how much land to trade for how much peace, Israeli officials are simultaneously discussing how much money they want from the U.S. to compensate for the sacrifice. This is important and must be done; however, indiscreet officials who’ve leaked outrageous figures for the cost of withdrawal from the Golan have done a grave disservice to the cause of peace and seriously hindered the lobbying effort that will be required to obtain any U.S. money.

Peace in the Middle East is in the national interest of the United States. That is why so much State Department and White House energy has been devoted over the last five decades to mediating talks between the parties. Peace also comes at a price not only for the parties in the region, but for the United States. Economic and military aid keeps our allies strong and allows them to take risks for peace.

Still, sending U.S. taxpayer money abroad is always a difficult sell, never mind that foreign aid makes up an infinitesimal portion of the overall budget. Thanks to the strength of the Israeli lobby, and a genuine recognition that American interests are served, most members of Congress support aid to Israel, but no one should doubt that they would prefer to spend the money at home. Israel’s agreement to gradually reduce its economic aid package was a helpful step, but the goodwill generated by that decision has largely been dissipated by talk of new peace aid totaling in the tens of billions of dollars.

The eventual withdrawal from the Golan Heights will undoubtedly be expensive. Israelis who are asked to move will have to be compensated, new security measures will have to be implemented, water supplies guaranteed and businesses moved or sold. It is important that the Israeli public be informed of the cost so an informed decision can be made when it comes time to hold a referendum on any future peace agreement. It will not be surprising if opponents of a deal exaggerate the cost and proponents minimize it.

In approaching the United States, Israel should be candid about the costs, but also reasonable. I’ve seen figures as high as $100 billion floating about. While Israelis trade land for peace, do they expect the United States to trade the Pentagon or Department of Health and Human Services? The same mistake was made a decade ago when the question of loan guarantees for Israel arose. Israeli officials announced huge sums were needed and before justifying the cost or crafting a message for the public, opponents created the impression that the United States was being asked to write a blank check.

I don’t know what a reasonable figure would be, but it doesn’t take a genius to know the lower it is the better. It may be possible to get more money if it’s spread over a long period of time, but Congress might be reluctant to make a long-term commitment to aid for Israel just after getting the deal to phase out economic aid. The decision of how much, for how long, should be negotiated not only with the White House, but with key members of Congress. Israel just got a huge peace package for signing the Wye accord with the Palestinians, but that was nearly botched because the President promised the money without adequately consulting Congress. In the case of a Golan package, the current President may not be in office by the time a deal is signed, so the more support that can be generated for the idea in Congress, the smoother sailing the legislation will have when it comes up.

Everything should have been done quietly, but that’s going to be difficult now that Israel is seen as demanding tens of billions of dollars. From now on, at least, the discussions should be kept private. Once a deal is made, then it is time to mount a PR blitz to show the American people why it is important to provide aid to make the Middle East a safer place for not only Israelis, but Americans.