Commentary Magazine


Is Peace Still Possible in the Middle East?: A Skeptical View

It is becoming increasingly difficult to envision a near-term breakthrough in the current round of Middle East negotiations. Between Egypt’s position that Israel must relinquish “every square inch, including Arab Jerusalem,” plus the stipulation of self-determination for the Palestinian Arabs, and Israel’s requirement of secure borders, plus the insistence of the governing Likud coalition on extensive historical rights in Judea and Samaria, the conditions for a compromise agreement do not seem to exist at the present time.

Yet there is a pervasive feeling among some observers in the United States that the remaining problems can be resolved, and that either a comprehensive settlement or at least a separate peace between Egypt and Israel can be achieved. Those who believe a comprehensive settlement is within sight base their hopes on a chain of developments regarding new policies that will or could be adopted by each of the states of the region. Menachem Begin is expected to retreat from his commitment to reconstituting the Land of Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, and to agree to compromise lines putting some historic lands outside the modern Jewish state. Sadat is expected to accept, and sell to his Arab partners, compromise boundaries in the West Bank and the Golan, and to make a separate peace in the Sinai. Jordan must agree to resume responsibility for the Palestinians of the West Bank, accept Israeli military control of the Jordan Valley and the foothills of Judea and Samaria, resign itself to permanent demilitarization of the areas surrendered by Israel, and give extraterritorial status to the Jewish settlements in those areas. Syria must accept Israeli annexation of major areas of the Golan Heights, or at least agree to complex alternative security arrangements demilitarizing not just the Heights themselves, but also a large part of the Bashan plateau area leading back to Damascus. A new, non-PLO, moderate leadership must emerge among the Palestinian Arabs of Gaza and the West Bank, and then agree to conditional autonomy within a truncated “Palestinian Bantustan” federated with the Bedouin kingdom of Jordan but under the de facto military control of Israel. The United States must agree to a military guarantee for Israel, and Israel must accept such a guarantee as compensation for the weakening of its own defense capabilities.

Overall, what is offered by those who foresee an immediate comprehensive settlement is not so much a projection of developments with a reasonable prospect of fulfillment in the near term as an exercise that borders on wishful thinking. Each of the elements in the analysis assumes a millennial transformation in the presently known position of one of the key actors. The probability that all will be realized in the near future strains credulity. Yet, if only one or two of the optimistic assumptions are denied, a near-term settlement is precluded.

There is a curious enthnocentrism behind this school’s image of the future. Some American observers who are keenly aware of the limitations on the freedom of action of their own country, and who are sensitive to the difficulties of even the most marginal changes in the foreign policies of the United States and Europe, seem to throw all caution to the wind when they turn to a “peripheral” region like the Middle East. When, as in Sadat’s unexpected journey to Jerusalem, extraordinary events do occur, these are seen not as rare departures from known and relatively stable patterns, but as proof that nothing is impossible.

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A second school offers a more qualified and purportedly more realistic assessment of the opportunities created by the Sadat initiative. Its adherents admit that the conditions for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict do not exist at the present time, particularly with regard to the Palestinian problem and the final disposition of the West Bank, but they believe that the logic of the new situation created by Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem has opened the possibility of a more limited but still enormously significant achievement, namely, a separate peace between Egypt and Israel. This would take out of the confrontation the largest Arab state; reduce the probability of a future reorientation of Cairo back to the Soviet Union; anchor one end of the Arab tightrope firmly in the West; and create new incentives for the other elements of the Arab coalition to accommodate themselves to a realistic and pragmatic future settlement on the other fronts.

What makes proponents of this line believe that a separate peace between Egypt and Israel is possible? Two principles seem to be at the root of the argument: (1) the unique geographic character of the Sinai, which is more conducive to a settlement than the geography and demography of the other fronts; and (2) the objective interests of Israel and Egypt, which can be reconciled more easily than the conflicts between Israel and the other parties (provided, of course, that the Sinai issue can be disengaged from those of the other fronts).

Postulated this way, the argument has considerable merit, although it is not without difficulties of its own. Israelis do not fully accept that Sinai is an integral, historic part of Egypt, and they point out that Egypt came into possession of the peninsula as recently as 1906, in an agreement between British imperial interests in Egypt and the Ottoman rulers of Palestine. This was itself more a consequence of British defense requirements for the Suez Canal and of Ottoman weakness than of any intrinsic Egyptian claims to the peninsula. Moreover, the archeological traces are equivocal on the issue of whether Sinai historically was part of the land ruled as Palestine or of Egypt: the traces of Nilotic or Egyptian civilization predominate in the west, those of Palestinian civilizations in the east. Nonetheless, Israelis acknowledge that Egypt’s symbolic attachment to Sinai today is greater than Israel’s, effectively conceding to Egypt a superior historic claim, and even the Begin government evaluates the Sinai issue on security-oriented rather than historic criteria. This means that if the peninsula could be restored to Egyptian sovereignty within an arrangement that kept the risk to Israel at a tolerable level, there would be no insurmountable problem on the Israeli side.

The security problems themselves are relatively uncomplicated here, as the Sinai peninsula is almost uniquely suited to serve as a buffer between two former adversaries. The vast and nearly unpopulated desert puts 120 miles of empty space between the developed areas of Israel and Egypt’s fertile Nile delta and populous Canal cities to the southwest. From a military point of view, east-west movement is limited to a few main axes in central Sinai, as the southern triangle of the peninsula below the line from Suez to Eilat is blocked by a highly elevated granite massif, and the northern zone along the Mediterranean coast is characterized by deep and undulating sand dunes that impede the movement of mass formations of armored vehicles and their supply trains.

The few central axes of military movement are crossed by as many as five defensive lines providing some natural fortification or terrain advantages to resist attacking forces: (1) the Suez Canal; (2) the western spine of hills including the Gidi and Mitla passes; (3) Gebel Ma’ara and Gebel Ya’alaq; (4) Gebel Libne and Gebel Halal; and (5) the El-Arish/Abu Aweigila/Quseima triangle. In effect, these positions unfold as successive fallback lines of defense in either direction, providing safeguards in the event that either side at some future date undertakes to violate an alternative security arrangement established by treaty. Such an arrangement would include a large demilitarized zone in the central part of Sinai; arms-limitation agreements to control force levels in other areas; special provisions to insure that the Straits of Tiran at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat would not be subject to blockade; and other technical provisions. While there are a few unresolved questions regarding Sinai, it appears that terms acceptable to both Egypt and Israel could be worked out if this were the only issue between the two states. In particular, Israel would have to surrender Yamit and the highly publicized settlements in the so-called Rafiah salient, but it is clear from private discussions with Israeli military and political officials that there is considerable sentiment in favor of yielding on these points if they were to become the only obstacles to a separate peace that would end the conflict with the largest Arab state.

It seems true, then, that if the outstanding issues were only the bilateral problems between Israel and Egypt, the physical requirements of peace could be satisfied. The two states have already resolved the most difficult elements of a Sinai compromise. Begin has reversed his longstanding position that Israel must remain in control of the peninsula, and Sadat has conceded the issue of full normalization following a settlement. On both sides, there have been substantial and painful concessions, and it would be unfair not to acknowledge the statesmanship that is evident on this issue.

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What, then, is holding up a bilateral settlement? To answer this, it is necessary to go beyond the technical, objective prerequisites of a separate peace and ask whether it is the will of the parties. The most obvious and apparent difficulty is President Sadat’s official position, which he has asserted from the outset of the peace initiative and reaffirmed at every opportunity since, that his aim is a comprehensive settlement of the conflict in all its elements, and not a separate peace between Egypt and Israel. In concrete terms, this means a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and self-determination for the Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank and in Gaza. On the question of territorial compromise, Sadat was completely explicit when he spoke before the Knesset:

Our land does not yield itself to bargaining, it is not even open to argument. To us, the nation’s soil is equal to the holy valley where God Almighty spoke to Moses. . . . We cannot accept any attempt to take away one inch of it, nor can we accept the principle of debating or bargaining over it. . . . And we insist on realizing full withdrawal, including Arab Jerusalem.

Behind this position is a perception that the armistice lines of 1949, which were not regarded by Arab leaders as having permanent legal status or political legitimacy until recently, have somehow over time come to be the “natural” lines of division delineating “Israel proper,” while the acquisitions of June 1967 are “territories annexed by force” and “Arab lands usurped by Israel.”

Of course, from the Israeli point of view, this is a very considerable improvement compared to Nasser, who considered “Israel’s very existence an act of aggression,” and to the more strident elements of the Arab camp, who regard not just the 1967 territories but also the lines of 1949 as reflecting nothing more than conquests by Jewish armies. Yet though President Sadat’s position represents the dovish end of the Arab spectrum, the great majority of Israelis find it an unacceptable basis for a comprehensive settlement. According to available electoral and poll data, 60 to 75 per cent of Israelis would be prepared to make extensive concessions in Judea and Samaria, in spite of the eloquent defense of Israel’s claims to these areas put forth by their Prime Minister, but no more than 5 to 10 per cent would agree to withdraw from certain key positions in Golan and the Jordan Valley which are considered indispensable to Israeli defense; and there is almost no one willing to give up Jerusalem.

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The advocates of a separate peace are aware that the linkage of Sinai to the other fronts would make it impossible to resolve the easiest issue until the most difficult ones can be settled. But they reconcile the dilemma by rejecting a “face-value” interpretation of Sadat’s position, in place of which they offer a reconstruction of the private intentions he must have had in mind when he undertook his peace initiative. As Robert W. Tucker sees it:

If Sadat did not go to Jerusalem with the intention of making a separate peace in all but name, then his action appears foolhardy. He could scarcely have believed that in isolation from his Arab partners, and against the bitter opposition of some, he could obtain for them what they stood virtually no chance of obtaining while preserving at least the semblance of unity.1

Sadat’s insistence on the principle of a comprehensive settlement and his rejection of a separate peace are therefore dismissed as tactical gambits to conceal the reverse motives. It follows that, if Israel had agreed to a nebulous statement on withdrawal from the other fronts, along the lines of Resolution 242 and open to various interpretations, and had accepted a vague and equally flexible formulation of the idea of Palestinian self-determination, a de facto separate peace could have been achieved without materially affecting the future bargaining latitude of any of the parties with regard to the other fronts.

There is a curious convergence here between the views of Western advocates of a separate settlement between Egypt and Israel who applauded the Sadat initiative, and Arab voices in the “steadfastness” front who have declared their opposition to the Sadat initiative in the most forceful terms. Both schools reject the prima facie meaning of Sadat’s words and see behind them hidden motives, hopeful to the first school, sinister to the second. The two schools also agree that Israel has missed an opportunity in not recognizing Sadat’s hidden meaning and exploiting it to take Egypt out of the confrontation. The two schools disagree, however, on the American role; the Arabs of the “steadfastness” front believe that the United States was privy to the real intention of Sadat’s actions from a very early point, while the Western advocates of a separate peace believe that Washington still has not had the vision or courage to recognize and seize this opportunity. But even here there is a core of similarity: both assess the Carter administration with a goodly share of the blame.

But the burden of proof of this reconstruction of Sadat’s hidden motives is on the authors of it, as is proper when a perfectly sensible statement of his motives has been given by the speaker himself. A considerable body of evidence is available regarding Egyptian intentions, and most of it supports the “face-value” interpretation of Sadat’s motives. The evolution of the Egyptian consensus over the last five years is manifest in official pronouncements, press commentaries, and private discussions with Western visitors, and while it is still possible for an Egyptian leader to implement this consensus in surprising ways (as in October 1973 and November 1977), it seems unlikely that a wholesale departure from established principles on the scale of a separate peace would not be reflected somewhere in observable behavior.

Indeed, these sources suggest an explanation of Sadat’s actions that is consistent with his own. From the Egyptian and Arab point of view, the decision to accept permanently a Jewish state in the middle of the Arab world, and to relocate the Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza rather than in their original homes in what is now “Israel proper,” represents an extraordinary concession and compromise on their part. What is being asked of Israel, namely, to return to the very lines within which it lived happily until 1967, seems to Egyptians relatively minor by comparison. Israeli counterclaims in Judea and Samaria, based on events that preceded the birth of Muhammad, simply have no relevance today and are seen as expressions of jingoist ideology and imperial rationalization. Israeli arguments based on security requirements are taken more seriously, but on these the Egyptian understanding differs fundamentally from that of Israel. For example, as anyone knows who has discussed the issue with Egyptian officials, soldiers, or scholars, even the most candid and forthcoming individuals refuse to be drawn into a discussion of the problem of secure borders. Egyptians genuinely believe, and they think Israelis already know or ought to learn, that there is no security in topographical obstacles, strategic depth, and defense barriers, but only in acceptance by one’s neighbors. They also believe that the wind of history is behind the Arab sail, that the Arabs are bound to improve their relative military position over time, and that there is no security for Israel behind a permanent wall of military preparation. If the Arabs make peace with Israel, secure borders will not be necessary. If they do not make peace, secure borders will not be sufficient.

Therefore, the Israeli definition of security, which begins with maintaining a balance of power, is considered to be based on a false premise. Sophisticated Egyptians understand the Israeli obsession with military defense, given the unhappy history of the Jews in Europe and also (it is sometimes admitted) the fact that the Arabs would in the past have destroyed Israel if they had had the means. But now, they say, Israel has the opportunity for real peace—not merely victorious wars spaced by periods of deterrence, but real acceptance. American visitors and other friends of Israel are repeatedly told—and the message is given special force by the obvious sincerity and conviction of these Egyptians—that if Israel fails to grasp the opportunity now before it, it will miss the chance for real peace.

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Yet the Egyptians have observed, during the several years that they have tried to communicate this message, that the sincerity of their change of heart has not been understood by Israel. Therefore, they have taken their strategy to a new stage. The first stage had been frankly military in orientation, and had sought to defeat the Israeli armies in the field to bring about a change through coercion or by making the costs of war unacceptably high. This failing, a second stage was begun, with two elements. One was to improve the relationship with Washington, so that the United States would put pressure on Israel to make concessions it might otherwise reject. The other was to try to communicate with Israel through various third parties, in order to bring about a change in Israel’s perception of the Arab threat. This approach, and the military option, have not been abandoned, but for some time there has been a growing acceptance of the idea that more direct communication is necessary if there is to be any hope of altering Israeli attitudes.

The opening of the third stage seems to be based on a recognition that what the Egyptians call “Israel’s complex of fear and insecurity” is a problem not just for Israel but also for the Arabs in the search for peace in the Middle East. Indirect negotiations will not suffice: the Arabs must deal face to face with the Jewish state and try to influence the perceptions of its officials and citizens as to what their vital national interests are. This is probably what Sadat means when he says that at least 70 per cent of the problem today is psychological.

The dramatic decision of President Sadat to go directly to Jerusalem and stand in the Knesset must be understood primarily in this light, as an attempt to get the Israelis to rethink their own fundamental assumptions about security. If all he had in mind was Sinai, and if he was in fact prepared to make a separate peace, such an extraordinary measure would not have been necessary. It was exactly because he meant what he said, and believed that the Israelis, once they could judge for themselves the depth of his sincerity, might experience a change in their hearts regarding their own security requirements, that he was prepared to accept the risks of such an enterprise. To this end, the opposition of his colleagues, while obviously posing a considerable threat within the inter-Arab context, was actually an asset in dealing with Israel. Once the Israelis saw his willingness to speak the unspeakable, despite the hail of criticism brought down upon him, they would give added weight to his words. And beyond this, his willingness to go to Jerusalem, which of course is not regarded by the Arabs as the capital of Israel, to visit Yad Vashem, accepting the relevance of the Holocaust to the problem of the Middle East, to say openly that once we did not accept you but now we do—all of these were clear signals that he intended to sweep past secondary obstacles, to address the issues in terms that the Israelis would understand, to touch the Israelis where they live. None of this was essential if the only problem was Sinai.

Sadat has answered his Arab critics that if all he wanted was Sinai he could have had an agreement by now, and he has devoted the greater part of his effort with the Israelis to the profound problem of the Palestinians and the other fronts. American advocates of a separate peace do not seem to take seriously that it is the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Arab Socialist Union, and the Arab cause that form the frame of reference within which Sadat operates. It is true that within every Arab state there are specifically national identities, not to mention subnational, Islamic, Third World, and other loyalties, but where is the evidence that Egypt is prepared fundamentally to separate itself from the Arab world?

Those who have emphasized the value to Egypt of a separate peace have been careful to sum up the economic and political gains of such a development, but they have not counted as carefully the economic and political costs. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf oil states today underwrite virtually the entire capital budget of the Egyptian armed forces, not to mention a considerable portion of Sadat’s economic-development program. These subsidies, said to be in excess of $2 billion per year, are extended not primarily out of a special concern for Egyptian needs as such, but on the recognition that wealthy “outer-ring” Arab states have a responsibility to offset some of the burden carried by the states on the front lines. If Egypt unilaterally removed itself from the coalition against Israel, it is entirely probable that the aid would be substantially reduced or withdrawn. Nor could American aid to Egypt, which already exceeds $1 billion per year, be increased to compensate such a loss on an ongoing basis. Similarly, the Arab Military Industries Organization facilities now under design and construction, which will be a major addition to Egypt’s industrial capital, and indeed are the largest industrialization projects now contemplated, are financed by the oil states and might well be terminated as a consequence of a separate peace. Moreover, elements within the Egyptian armed forces and bureaucracy that would in any case oppose a break with the Arab front are much stronger now that they have as external allies the oil states as well as Syria, Iraq, and Libya. To point out that Sadat nonetheless managed to engineer his visit to Jerusalem without domestic upheaval is to ignore the considerable differences in scale between a separate peace and an independent tactical initiative undertaken within an agreed framework of basic assumptions.

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II

If neither a comprehensive settlement nor a separate peace is immediately foreseeable, is it fair to ask what constructive measures are realistic? Behind such a question, there is often the unspoken belief that surely some solution must be available to achieve a decisive step for peace now. But it is at least a logical possibility that, in spite of the major step that was taken by President Sadat in November, no near-term complete or partial settlement can be achieved, and all we can hope for are additional steps to prepare the groundwork for a more distant breakthrough. The mood of “solutionism,” which is now pervasive and which is reflected in both the proposals for a comprehensive settlement and those for a separate peace, may be premature. Even if we could invent a model agreement that in principle satisfied the essential needs of each of the parties, our construct might well call upon the various actors to accept terms which, however inevitable they may be in the longer perspective, would be unacceptable in the short term. A government may be constrained by domestic or international limitations on its freedom of action, or it may continue to believe, based on its reading of the trends in the balance of power, that it can get more than the share we have allotted it. Sadat’s dramatic initiative has inspired visions of a new diplomacy for this troubled region, but it is probably the case that the long-term prospects for peace are more deeply affected by the endemic factors than by short-term factors under the control of individual leaders. The transition to peace may therefore span a decade rather than a few months. Among the fundamental changes that will be required are some basic assumptions on both sides.

On the Arab side, there will have to be a recognition that no Israeli government can or will agree to new arrangements under which Israel’s security would depend primarily on the good will of the Arabs. It is no doubt the case that political recognition and true acceptance are the ultimate objectives of peace. But any Israeli government will have to negotiate on the assumption that the last line of Israeli withdrawal could be the starting point of the next Arab attack, should the Arab governments or their successors have another change of heart in the future and repudiate or violate the agreement. Western observers and the Arabs themselves may consider the resumption of a state of war unlikely after an agreement, but the future intentions of the Arabs cannot be known with certainty now even by the Arabs themselves. Therefore, it is an elementary requirement of any new arrangement that it provide for the reasonable worst case—i.e., that Israel be able to defend itself if the Arabs do in fact subsequently go to war.

This means in practice that the Israeli requirement for secure borders must be taken into account and that the Arab expectation of every last inch is unrealistic. While the peculiar geography of Sinai makes it possible to base an adequate Israeli defense behind the pre-1967 line, provided that the peninsula is demilitarized, the opportunities on the other fronts are less promising. The West Bank, Gaza, and Golan are directly contiguous to Israeli population centers, and in these areas the old lines are devoid of natural obstacles to the movement of regular military forces or guerrilla units. Three-quarters of the Jewish population of Israel, and half its industry, are concentrated in the narrow coastal strip, only 9 to 18 miles wide, from the former Jordanian armistice line to the Mediterranean sea. Modern artillery, like the Soviet M-54 field gun, which has a range in excess of 17 miles, could reach any military installation, airfield, or factory in Israel’s central zone from emplacements on the West Bank. Surface-to-air missiles such as the Soviet SA-2 or the U.S. Hawk would cover not only the air space over the West Bank itself but also that over most of Israel’s first-line military airfields and the Ben-Gurion airport. Innumerable routes for guerrilla infiltration pass between the West Bank and the heavily populated areas of central Israel. The West Bank hills could provide ideal sanctuaries if they came under the control of a PLO government prepared to support a campaign of irregular warfare.

Nor would demilitarization be as simple to effect on this front. Unlike Sinai, the West Bank has an Arab population of 700,000, and there is a steady stream of commerce and communication between the local Arab population and the Arab countries to the east. Last year, 30,000 trucks crossed the Jordan bridges, carrying commercial goods to and from the Arab world. The West Bank would have its own airports and possibly also a seaport (at Gaza), and without meticulous inspection there would be opportunities to smuggle in significant quantities of modern arms, which concentrate accurate and effective firepower in smaller units. If a mechanism exists to prevent remilitarization without Israeli units in the Jordan Valley and other positions, it has not been identified convincingly in the available literature. Most advocates of demilitarization have merely assumed that the technical and political problems can be solved, without subjecting this assumption to any serious scrutiny, or they have reasoned from the “example” of Sinai. But Sinai is, in most respects, an exception rather than an example.

There are a very few Israeli military specialists, notably Matityahu Peled and Meir Pa’il, who demur from the consensus of the Israeli experts on the issue of secure borders, and their views have been given extensive and disproportionate publicity in the Arab world and the West. This has encouraged the illusion that what is in fact the preponderance of opinion in Israel on security questions, as reflected in the statements of senior military officers and ministers of defense, does not have to be taken seriously. There are, of course, also differences of opinion in the mainstream of Israeli thought on the requirements of security, but these take place within a narrower band. In the May 1977 elections, parties standing on a security platform similar to that of Pa’il and Peled got less than 2 per cent of the Jewish vote, though they had ample access to the media and put their case before the public fully and articulately. As the Arabs come to watch Israeli politics more closely, through elections, opinion polls, the media, and public statements, they will observe for themselves the real consensus within Israel and the limitations within which any Israeli government must operate. This will provide new opportunities to communicate with the Israelis, but it may also change the Arabs’ perspective over time on what is attainable.

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Taking the Israeli requirement for defensible borders into account does not mean that the Arabs should be expected to concede sovereignty to Israel over the Arab population centers of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Israel could relinquish control over these population centers while retaining certain positions of particular strategic value but outside the populated areas, as in the Jordan Valley and the eastern foothills of Judea and Samaria. As noted earlier, the majority of Israelis would agree to such an arrangement, and there are indications that within the military establishment there is also considerable support for this approach as part of a general peace settlement.

The Begin government has a different view, and maintains that in addition to the relatively narrow security issues there are extensive historical rights to be considered. But it is unlikely that the claims to the Judean and Samarian hills, though these were the locus classicus of the Jewish people, can be sustained in the future. First, there is the simple fact that the majority of Israelis, though their souls may be touched by Begin’s stirring call to return to the Land, value the lives of their sons more highly than the graves of their ancestors. Jewish traffic in the West Bank, never heavy, is actually on the decline, and most modern Israelis do not regard the ancient cities of Hebron, Shiloh, and Shechem (Nablus) as the heart of the modern Jewish state. The fact that most Israelis are not willing to die for Shechem as such affects the balance of power, and it tips the scales on this issue in favor of the Arabs. Begin is asserting a claim which, over the long term, most Israelis may not be willing to defend by making the necessary sacrifices.

Second, there is the so called demographic time-bomb entailed in adding the million Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza to the population under Israeli control. If the Arabs of the occupied areas are added to those of the pre-1967 territory, and if the Jewish and Arab birth rates perform as projected, there will be an Arab majority in the Jewish state within thirty years. Nor is there any sound basis for the belief that the problem will be solved by large waves of Jewish immigration. Many Israelis believe that, in his zeal to reconstruct the biblical state, Begin is actually laying the groundwork instead for a binational state. The inescapable demographic realities of the area are another reason why the historic claim cannot be sustained.

Finally, there is the problem that, if the Arabs do eventually offer Israel a peace with defensible borders, but insist on the return of the main Arab population centers, most Israelis will accept these terms as reasonable. For the moment, they are willing to support Begin in rejecting the present Arab offer, but only because they also are not satisfied with the security provisions. If the issues of history and security are separated by future events, the domestic political situation will be different. Not just splinter groups but major centrist elements of the Israeli polity will say, let’s sign the agreement.

It may be impossible for the present government to change fundamentally its position on the historic claims. But as Israelis observe the implications of their own positions during the ongoing discussions and interaction with the Arabs, and as they are forced to ask themselves which of their own demands are indispensable and which are merely desirable, a political maturation process will occur. Dramatic steps forward, when they happen, will reflect rather than precede the gradual evolution of attitudes; the impatience of critics will not accelerate but will retard the necessary changes.

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III

The United States can contribute to the evolution of steps toward peace in the Middle East, but the very belief that the U.S. holds the key to the problem may be counterproductive. The Egyptians in particular and the Arabs in general will not be prepared for a territorial compromise as long as they think Washington can “deliver” Israel on their terms. They are keenly aware of the concatenation of factors in their favor in the United States, and are liable to hold higher expectations than are warranted by the evidence. Parallels are often drawn in the Arab press between President Eisenhower’s success in securing Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in 1957 and the leverage that is available to Washington today when the issue is the West Bank. This is, of course, a false parallel, but it nourishes hope. The present administration’s success in getting the arms-sale package through the Senate is taken by those who seek major changes in U.S. policy as confirmation that the Jewish lobby, which they have always considered the main limitation on American freedom of action, can be beaten. The efficacy of an imposed settlement, meaning one imposed on Israel, is bound to look greater for the moment.

As Washington pursues a more active mediating role, the temptation increases to regard the United States as a direct party to the negotiations. As the American participants become involved in the details of one issue after another, and use a combination of inducements and threats to bring the Israelis and Arabs together, their role slips, or is perceived to slip, from that of mediator to that of arbitrator. For this reason, while an active mediating role for the United States is helpful for resolving a fine point at a difficult moment, or for smoothing over interruptions in the negotiating process that are bound to occur, the cumulative effect of activism is not so constructive. It reinforces the belief that Washington can and eventually will move more boldly to elicit sweeping Israeli concessions on the vital issues rather than on just the procedural and tangential obstacles. Doing less may at times be frustrating, but a final settlement may come sooner if Washington refrains from actively expediting the intermediate steps.

With regard to Israel, it is essential that the U.S. take a longer-time perspective and recognize that the necessary evolution of attitudes cannot be engineered from the outside or achieved overnight. The main consideration should be the forces that have been activated in Israel by the Sadat visit, not the exercise of levers that can only enhance the Israelis’ sense of threat and strengthen the linkage between historical claims and security. It is probably too much to expect a period of benign neglect on the part of Washington, but we might restrain the more enthusiastic efforts to “save Israel in spite of herself.” The American position is quite visible to Israelis, and, like Saudi influence in the United States, it will be felt without any brandishing of the big stick. On the contrary, efforts to coerce Israel directly will produce results that are precisely the opposite of what was intended, while quiet and patient efforts at persuasion will, over time, have their reward.


Footnotes

1 “The Middle East: For a Separate Peace,” COMMENTARY, March 1978.

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