Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 20, 1982, Pages 2-3


Assessing the U.S. Peace Plan

For the first time since we've known him, the friend who likes to come in and quiz us about the Middle East showed up only a few days after his previous visit. He looked pleased about something, and had an anticipatory gleam in his eye.

Q Hi!

A Hi yourself, friend. What brings you back so soon?

Q Well, the last time we talked was before President Reagan came out with that new Middle East plan of his. Then I read that editorial where you said the plan had come out such a short time before your press run that you only had time to say "bravo."

A So?

Q So I could hardly wait to hear more. I figured you must be tickled pink and—

A Figure again.

Q What?

A Why should I be tickled pink?

Q B-b-b-but you said—

A Sit down before you fall down, and for heaven's sake don't cry. Look, I really meant it when I said "bravo." Honest. After all, what the President did was to abandon, practically overnight, a policy of accepting, however unintentionally, the idea that whatever Israel thought was in its interest was also in the U.S. interest—and he substituted this with a policy which tries to address the interests of everyone involved in the area, including ourselves. For the President to reverse course this way took a lot of political courage. And the timing—which allowed the Arab leaders to consider the plan during their summit conference at Fez—was very astute, too.

Q Is that all?

A No, of course not. I'm glad he called for a freeze on settlements, and I think it was a great improvement to suggest that the Palestinian Arabs should exercise full autonomy on the West Bank under the Jordanian Arabs, instead of under the Israelis.

Q Whew. You had me worried. For a moment I thought you didn't like the President's plan—

A You'd better keep worrying, then—because I really don't like it very much. As I mentioned in the editorial, I have lots of reservations as to its content and its prospects for success.

Q So what's wrong with it?

A I was hoping we'd finally get to that. Firstly, I think it's unrealistic to expect that there will be peace and stability in the Middle East as long as the Palestinians are not able to exert true self-determination—which means having their own state. To rule it out will just postpone the day of reckoning.

Q Wouldn't this be impossible for the Israelis to accept?

A Perhaps. On the other hand, it's just as hard to convince Mr. Begin that Israel has nothing to fear from an autonomous Palestinian entity under Jordan as it is to convince him that there is nothing to fear from an entirely independent Palestine state. In fact, Mr. Begin argues that there would be nothing to prevent King Hussein from handing over the West Bank to the Palestinians to form their own state, once he has jurisdiction over it. So if Mr. Begin fears both scenarios equally, what is there to lose by going for the big one—trying to talk him into accepting a Palestinian state?

Q But wouldn't a Palestinian state be very dangerous?

A So the Israelis say. In fact, so do a lot of other people. But look at it this way: Firstly, no Palestinian state is going to be allowed to emerge without everyone and his brother getting into the act to provide border guarantees, demilitarized zones, you name it. Secondly, a state restricted to the West Bank and Gaza would be a very small state—little more than a quarter of the size of Israel, and pushed up against Jordan in the east and practically surrounded by Israel from the other three sides. Thirdly, it would be hardly viable economically. Even if it armed itself to the teeth, can you imagine this kind of country being a threat to Israel—the military giant which has just shown us such devastating power in Lebanon? And in any case, as we all know from having seen Israel operate militarily so many times in the past, Israel would never let the Palestinian state build itself up to the point where it would constitute a serious threat: Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike to take over the West Bank once again. Lastly, if a Palestinian state comes into existence through negotiation, rather than war, it would have to recognize Israel first. It is so inconceivable that the Palestinians might just be content to have their state at last, and to fulfill their pledge to recognize Israel behind its pre-1967 borders?

Q How about the danger of its becoming a Soviet satellite?

A The Israelis would love to have the U.S. believe this, but it's hard to take seriously. To begin with, Yasser Arafat is not a Marxist, nor are most of the other PLO leaders. They are nationalists, who are fighting to get a homeland, not to impose any particular ideology on it. Yes, it's true they've accepted all the help they could get from the Soviets in arms supplies. Why would anyone expect them not to, if it's impossible for them to procure the weapons from anywhere else? It's worth remembering that the Israelis, too, while they were fighting the Arabs in the 1948 war, sought—and received—weapons and ammunition from the Soviet bloc, including fighter planes.

Q You've got to be kidding—

A Nope. The Israelis even sent some officers to training camps in Soviet bloc countries. Did this turn Israel into a Soviet satellite? There are a number of countries getting Soviet arms even today, such as India, which are not Soviet satellites.

Q Okay, What else don't you like about Mr. Reagan's plan?

A I'm concerned about some of the follow-up statements Secretary Shultz has been making. He's been emphasizing to various groups that the U.S. has no intention whatsoever of trying to nudge Israel towards a solution by holding back on economic or military aid. He says he believes that the prospect for Israel of getting peace will be sufficient incentive. Well, now. It's one thing not to announce publicly or in a dramatic way that we are going to put pressure on the Israelis—that can be counterproductive. But it's quite another thing to foreclose our option to go ahead and do it.

Q Why?

A Because Israel is not going to move towards our vision of a fair Middle East settlement just by being talked into it, as Secretary Shultz seems to think—because their vision of what constitutes an acceptable peace in the Middle East is quite different from ours. The Israelis will only budge if they feel it would hurt them not to—and we are the only country that can hurt them. Mr. Shultz has been talking a lot about how important it is for all the parties to get to the bargaining table and hammer things out without pressure or interference. But this idea seems to pre-suppose that the Israelis and the Arabs are equals at the bargaining table. How can they bargain as equals as long as it is the Israelis who have their troops in occupation of Arab land, instead of vice-versa? The Israelis already have just about everything they want, and the only debate will be over how much they can be persuaded to give up. If the Israelis decide they like things as they are, and just keep stalling, what can the Arabs across the table do to stop them? Not much. Only if the U.S. is willing to use its leverage over the Israelis to give them a tangible incentive to compromise can a balance of forces be maintained at the negotiating table. Otherwise, the Arabs will see the U.S. plan as an invitation, not to negotiate, but to surrender, and they won't come.

Hey, where are you going? There are some other things that—

Q Sorry, I'm feeing a little funny, now. It must be my digestion. See you soon.