‘GIs caught in the crossfire in Syria’

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This could very easily have been a headline today, if approximately 18 years ago, a tiny group of friends and I had not succeeded in our endeavors. This has truly hit home today, as I opened up this Sunday’s New York Times and read the headline, “U.N Suspending Syria Mission, Citing Violence.”

In the early ‘90s, I had been part of a small campaign, led by Ambassador Yoram Ettinger, former minister of congressional affairs at the Israeli Embassy under Yitzhak Shamir, to prevent the stationing of U.S. troops on the Golan Heights. The rationale behind the strategy of stationing America GIs on that valuable strategic terrain, had been to quietly station American forces there, as a way of sweetening a bitter pill to the Israelis as well as the American Jewish community, as part of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

This was during the heady years of Oslo. Most people then actually believed we could reach a durable peace simply by signing a piece of paper with the likes of a Hafez al-Assad, or a Yasser Arafat. Few, in those days, were thinking down the road. Few questioned whether or not the societal landscapes had been sown for a peace that could endure for generations. Few were asking themselves the crucial questions of what the leaders were teaching their children about Jews, and about Israel.

At that time, negotiators for Yitzhak Rabin had been quietly meeting with representatives of Hafez al-Assad, arguing how much of the Golan Heights Israel was to give up to the Syrians. “We were just a centimeter close to a deal,” said a former Israeli government official.

The overarching tactic of those in favor of stationing U.S. troops on the Golan Heights had been one of a complete blackout of any detail of these plans from public purview. Any time that we had tried to have a complete and open public debate about the ramifications of such a plan, the buzzword used to silence the debate, was “premature.” All the plans were to be made behind closed doors. Then Defense Secretary Les Aspin told us that there had been carefully drawn plans at the Pentagon. The troops were to be stationed as a fait accompli, as part of a “peace package” thrown in, with the giving away of the Golan Heights to Hafez al-Assad.

In October, 1994, under the auspices of former Congressman Jim Saxton, (R-N.J.), I had arranged for a press conference on Capitol Hill with some American generals arguing that America has got to openly and publicly examine the ramifications of such a move. Then Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) came into the room and announced that “The only reason I am here is because my good friend, Jim Saxton, from the Delaware Valley, has asked me to come. As far as I am concerned, this whole issue is premature, and should be left up to the parties, themselves, which are the Israelis and the Syrians. Now I have got a vote I’ve got to go to.”

It was a shame that the good senator had not stayed in the room, because then he would have realized that this plan involved American GIs.

Prior to this, it had always been a cornerstone of Israeli philosophy that the Jewish state defend itself, by itself; that they would never ask foreign power to take a bullet to defend the state of Israel. I knew in my gut, for so many reasons, that this was a lamebrain idea, not the least of which was that if good American Christian boys would start arriving home in body bags, killed in defense of the Jewish state, the door would have been wide open to large scale anti-Semitism in the United States, and, ultimately would be harmful to American-Israeli relations.

An article in the Forward on Oct. 21, 1994, reported, “Although the discussion is ostensibly about sending American troops to the Golan, it will no doubt provide a new battleground for supporters and opponents of an Israeli withdrawal from that area. Meanwhile, though a promise of American involvement in the Golan Heights might help broker an agreement between Damascus and Jerusalem and reassure Israelis wary of a Syrian threat, opponents of the idea argue that it would both needlessly expose Americans and simultaneously fail to provide Israel and Syria with the conditions for a lasting peace.”

In that same article, the then-president of AIPAC, Steve Grossman, was reported as saying, “There is no need to have a discussion” before a detailed request is made by Israel and Syria. And Gary Rubin, then, executive director of American Friends for Peace Now, was quoted as saying, “I don’t believe that the reason this is being brought up is out of sincere concern for the safety of American troops, (but to) impede peace between Israel and Syria.”

In those days, some had called me the “enemy of peace” and “the Jewish counterpart to Hamas”, simply for trying to evaluate the ramifications of such a move and expose it to free and open public analysis. One person told me that his son was in the IDF and that if something happened to him, “I will hold you, Sarah Stern, personally responsible”.

Today, in Syria we are watching the brutal, systematic massacring of more than 12,000 fellow Muslims and Arabs at the hands of men commanded by Bashir Assad. On June 11, 2012, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff, Yair Naveh warned, “If he could, Assad would do to us what he is doing to his own people.”

Many lessons can be drawn from this. Foremost among them, as Judge Louis Brandeis had said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” People are not stupid. Plans like this need to be analyzed before they become a fait accompli” and “Think down the road as to whether your negotiating partner is educating his population for a peace that can endure for generations, or whether this will just be a temporary truce, or a hudna, in which to re-arm and re-group. The best way to test for that is to see what the leaders are saying to their own people, in their own language.

Mostly, l remain incredibly grateful to have been a part of this small but intelligent and effective group, and to have played, even a tiny part in preventing what could have been a huge strategic blunder for both the United States and for Israel.

Originally published at Washington Jewish Week.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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