U.S. Senators Evaluate Israel's Security Situation

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - A US Senate Appropriations Committee delegation is visiting the Middle East to evaluate the security situation here, but members said it was too early to talk about specific sums of financial aid that might be forthcoming or whether US troop deployment might be required to secure a peace deal between Israel and Syria.

Speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem, delegation head Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said they had not "undertaken any discussions here in Israel on the nature or scale of U.S. support for the peace process with Syria. These agreements have not been reached and it's very premature."

Since Israeli-Syrian talks resumed in December, with U.S. prompting, there has been widespread speculation that the cost of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights - a Syrian demand for restarting the talks - could reach $70 billion, and that the U.S. would be expected to foot most of the bill.

Stevens, Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), Ernest Hollings (D-South Carolina), Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday.

"[Barak] gave us the benefit of his perspective on the status of the talks with Syria and Israeli priorities," Stevens said, but figures of aid were not discussed.

"We heard no numbers and we didn't expect to hear any numbers. We're not at that stage in the negotiations."

A communiqu\'e9 from the prime minister's office said Barak told the US delegation, "Even if peace agreements cost money, it is always less expensive than any war."

Specter said he hoped "that everybody involved would do their utmost to discourage speculation about the cost."

"I think it's also important to emphasize that other nations will have to contribute as well - European nations [and] the Gulf States...It's not the burden of the United States alone," he added.

If it would be tough to get Congress to approve funds for Israel, it would be even trickier to get money for Syria, said Stevens.

"[Getting money for Syria is] going to be very difficult because of the past character of some of the activities they've been involved in and I think they're still classified as a terrorist nation in our country," he said.

"We mentioned that to the administration here in Israel. It's going to have to be very carefully handled if any United States money [is given to Syria]."

While it was "premature to talk about deployment of [American peacekeeping] forces" on the Golan Heights, Stevens said, it would not be an unprecedented move.

"I think there are soldiers from my state here right now in this area and they're carrying out previous peace treaties. I have no basic difficulty with that. Our people readily accept the assignments that their commanders give them," he said.

On Wednesday, the senators visited the Golan Heights and the Lebanese border, accompanied by senior Israeli Defense Force commanders. (Because the strategic Golan Heights are considered occupied territory, U.S. officials do not normally go there accompanied by Israeli military or government officials, U.S. embassy spokesman Larry Schwartz told CNSNews.com.)

"Senior IDF commanders...presented to us very forcefully the security priorities of the Israeli military," Stevens said.

"I think that anyone who would see [the Golan Heights] would immediately understand the major concession which Israel is making," Specter told CNSNews.com.

"Security arrangements are one thing, solving the water [sharing] is another thing, but I think that Israel is looking for a warm peace ... One of the newspaper columnist said that Syria seems to regard this as a necessary evil. Well that's not the way you make a marriage - and this is a form of a marriage."

Beyond the security situation, Specter said the delegation also has been trying to gauge Israeli public opinion on the issue. A large, peaceful demonstration against any withdrawal from the Golan Heights was held in Tel Aviv on Monday evening.

"Israelis are going to look for something more than just documents that says one side will not attack the other," he said. "They're looking for a warm peace...[Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk] Shara's comments opening [the talks in December were] not exactly encouraging and friendly."

Shara took advantage of what was supposed to be a three-minute greeting at the start of the Washington talks, to deliver a fully prepared speech, in which he lambasted Israel and restated Syria's demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.