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Clinton Assures Rabin on U.S. Role in Peacekeeping Force

By John M. Goshko
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

President Clinton assured Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Monday that if Israel and Syria reach a peace agreement requiring the presence of neutral troops on the Golan Heights, he will seek to persuade the American people and Congress that U.S. soldiers should be part of the peacekeeping force.

Clinton made that commitment in the wake of recent statements by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., calling for reexamination of the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace process. Helms, who will become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, raised questions about the obligations and dangers involved if U.S. troops are interposed between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights.

"There has been no discussion among the parties of a role for American forces yet," Clinton told reporters after meeting Rabin at the White House. "Let let the people who have to make this agreement make it, and then if we're asked by the parties themselves to become involved at some point in the future, I will come to the American people, I will come to the Congress, and I will make the case at that time."

The key element in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations centers on whether Israel should return the Golan, captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, to Syria in exchange for normal relations with Syrian President Hafez Assad's government. If Israel does withdraw, Rabin has said there must be a neutral force stationed on the Golan as a buffer to ensure that Syria does not use the strategic heights for future attacks on the Jewish state.

Helms is a strong supporter of Israel. However, the conservative senator sympathizes with Rabin's hard-line conservative political opposition, which is reluctant to surrender the Golan Heights. As a result, Helms has said, U.S. troops could be caught in the middle of a new Israeli-Syrian conflict.

While Rabin has said that he considers Helms a friend to his country, the prime minister's remarks Monday betrayed his uneasiness about possible congressional opposition to putting American soldiers on the Golan.

Clinton and Rabin spent considerable time discussing the urgent pleas for economic help from Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat's beleaguered self-rule government. Arafat is trying to consolidate his authority in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in the face of opposition from Islamic fundamentalists who draw support in part from people suffering from the widespread poverty in these areas.