Commentary Magazine


The Middle East: A Consensus of Error

A consensus has been developing lately on what the main problem is in the Middle East, and what needs to be done about it. This consensus is shared by a large and growing majority of the international community, including most Western diplomats, our European allies, business executives in the United States and Europe, and many intellectuals, policy analysts, and political observers. It includes people who would otherwise line up on widely divergent or even opposing political sides. In the United States, for example, it is not only many Democratic and Republican foreign-policy analysts who share in this consensus, but the conservative, business-oriented Right and the radical Left. Indeed, it is the only thing that Time magazine, John Connally, Jesse Jackson, Bechtel, the Fluor Corporation, Paul N. McCloskey, Jr., J. William Fulbright, George Ball, the Nation, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford have in common.

The main tenets of the consensus are that the Camp David accords are an insufficient basis for seeking peace in the Middle East; that the PLO (or at least a dominant faction within it) is prepared to accept peace with Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, the Gaza strip, and East Jerusalem, and in return for the establishment of a PLO state; that Saudi Arabia is a moderate force, a country whose wealth and leadership can be relied upon to aid the pursuit of peace; that enhancing the security of the states of the Persian Gulf is a means of insuring energy supplies and also of protecting Western interests; and that the major impediment to a policy based on the foregoing propositions is the Jews of the United States—just as, in the Middle East, Prime Minister Begin’s government is the cause of the current crisis.

These ideas are starkly different from those held by elite opinion just a few years ago. There have, of course, always been deep divisions in America about our Middle East policy. The difference now lies in the widespread acceptance of attitudes previously considered quite controversial: disillusionment with Israel, willingness to deal with the PLO, growing faith in Saudi Arabia. Since these attitudes are not shared by the majority of American Jews, they have inevitably generated conflict when they have been put to the test of policy, as in the bitter fight over the sale of the AWACS to Saudi Arabia. One palpable consequence of the new consensus is that it has inhibited the exploration of alternative U.S. policies in the Middle East.

How did this new approach emerge so rapidly over the last few years? For one thing, there is the increased power and leverage available to the Arab oil producers as a consequence of the world energy crisis. It is true that the recent oil glut has somewhat dissipated the effect of that leverage, but despite the current surplus, the OPEC price of oil is still punishingly high—the same barrel which cost $12.70 in 1979 now costs $34.00—and the sums accruing to the oil producers are correspondingly vast. Saudia Arabia is expected to earn $1.69 trillion in oil revenue in the 1980’s. Such a sum will buy huge commercial and arms contracts for the growing Saudi industrial infrastructure. It will also buy Washington lobbyists and support for Saudi programs and policies from those who profit from them.

What motivates the corporate-Right sector in this regard is clear: the Saudis possess both money and oil in quantities large enough to fuel passions for profit aplenty. What is less easily explainable is the support Saudi Arabia receives from the Left. After all, the Riyadh government may be exotic but it is not exactly a paragon of human rights or civil liberties. Indeed, on the surface, it is precisely the type of repressive right-wing regime that in Latin America, Africa, and Asia would be an object of opprobrium. Yet whatever the Saudis’ internal practices, externally they support left-wing regimes and movements, and primarily the PLO, with its network of contact and support within radical movements worldwide, as well as governments like those of Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the Saudis, like most American leftists and many liberals, are opposed to U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. They recently offered the Omanis a $1.2 billion bribe to terminate their involvement with the U.S., and they will not allow American troops on their own soil. The Saudi unwillingness to cooperate with U.S. foreign-policy aims in the Middle East provides an additional source of appeal to the Left.

Another important factor in the development of the new consensus is the sympathy which has grown for the Palestinian cause among the Western intellectual elite. In the post-1967 period the Palestinians have come to be successfully depicted as dispossessed and long-suffering anti-imperialists, while Israel has come to be associated with a variety of intellectually discredited causes: imperialism, colonialism, racism, anti-Communism. That the PLO sought and still seeks to displace Israel as a whole has been a fact largely denied in the interests of forming this new intellectual attitude.

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The consensus of opinion leads inexorably to policy implications. Given the widespread nature of the consensus, it is not surprising that several of these policies are already being adopted—though they differ markedly from approaches pursued in previous years.

First, since a settlement of the Palestinian question is seen as central to American interests, both diplomatic and corporate, those who accept the consensus usually favor dealing with the PLO directly—as do, of course, those who view such dealings as the path toward a just resolution of the Palestinian issue.

Second, the prevailing consensus reinforces a traditional State Department preference for comprehensive approaches to Arab-Israeli problems. Most U.S. officials would clearly like to see a rapprochement between Egypt and its Arab critics, and especially between Cairo and Riyadh. Yet given the uncompromising stance taken in most Arab capitals toward Israel, Egypt’s reemergence within the Arab world can only occur realistically through a “broadening”—i.e., an abandonment—of the Camp David framework. That is a price advocates of the consensus are ready to pay, and in pursuit of this goal they have pointed to the failure of the autonomy talks between Egypt and Israel to produce an agreed-upon solution to the Palestinian problem, and hence to the need for an alternative to Camp David.

Third, the consensus leads toward a concentration on Saudi Arabia as a pillar—if not the single pillar—of U.S. policy in the Gulf and perhaps the Middle East as a whole. To bolster the Saudi regime—seen as the crucial element in spreading the peace and in maintaining stability throughout the region as a whole—a policy of massive arms sales has been advanced, and justified as being in the strategic interests of the United States.

Fourth, adherents of the consensus favor putting pressure on Israel to agree to major concessions, and tend to view with skepticism or hostility Israel’s justifications of its position. Not surprisingly, this stance has led to tensions in the “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S. In the first year of the Reagan administration, multiple crises occurred between the two countries over such issues as the U.S. sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia; the significance of the placement of Syrian missiles in Lebanon; the Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Beirut; the Fahd plan for a Middle East settlement; the application of Israeli law to the Golan Heights; and so forth. In each of these situations the reflex reaction of the nation’s foreign-policy elite, both inside and outside the government, was to find fault with Israeli actions and explanations. On three occasions in 1981, indeed, the U.S. broke written agreements with Israel in order to punish behavior seen as unjustified—a tribute to the growing confidence of the consensus position.

Finally, the belief has taken hold that the American Jewish community has too much “power,” which it exercises in blind support of Israel’s policy whether or not that policy coincides with the national interests of the United States. To a number of advocates of the consensus position, something needs to be done, and soon, about the influence of the Jewish “lobby” in Washington.

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II

Is there anything to be said, on the merits, for the new consensus? Unfortunately there is not. Its assumptions are flawed, its analysis is inaccurate, and the tactics it espouses are unlikely to achieve the objectives of peace and stability for which they are presumably designed.

With respect to the PLO, the questions that immediately arise are whether that organization has indeed become more moderate, whether its objectives are compatible with our own, and what a policy of dealing with the PLO would bring about.

Many supporters of the Palestinian cause assert that it is only domestic politics which has prevented the United States from dealing directly with an essentially moderate PLO. But the record reveals a very different picture: Palestinian Arab politics is a case history in the institutional refusal to compromise. Long before the United States set conditions for talking with the PLO, the Palestinians had repeatedly rejected any partition of the British Mandate, and in 1947 rejected the United Nations partition plan. In 1975 the U.S. set only two minimal conditions to direct negotiations with the PLO—recognition of Israel’s right to exist and acceptance of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. The PLO was not even asked to abjure terrorism or to rewrite its national covenant, which calls not only for the destruction of Israel but also for the departure from the country of most of its Jewish inhabitants. Yet PLO policy still did not change. In 1977 the Carter administration, in overtures to the PLO, suggested that mere acceptance of UN Resolution 242 would suffice as a minimal condition—but the PLO spurned even this opportunity for a major diplomatic breakthrough, as it subsequently refused to join the Camp David peace process, which won back for Anwar Sadat all the Egyptian territory captured in 1967. Instead, the PLO continued its long-standing campaign of terror and murder directed at any West Bank or Gaza leaders suspected of peaceful inclinations. Today the PLO remains firmly opposed to “American imperialism” and continues to maintain close association with the USSR from which it still receives directly or indirectly the major portion of its supplies and equipment.

Many observers argue that if the PLO came to power, these problems would largely disappear. Citing hints from individual spokesmen, they claim that the PLO would move away from the Soviet Union once its objectives were achieved. Given the internal differences and disunity within the organization, such isolated hints are meaningless. Moreover, it is difficult to believe that a PLO mini-state on the West Bank would not have irredentist goals—against Israel and Jordan and perhaps Lebanon as well—and the Soviet Union would still be the power most able and willing to assist such aims. A weak and internally divided Palestinian state would be a home to terrorist tendencies. A strong one might rapidly overturn any restrictions placed upon it and confront the United States with a dilemma even more unpalatable than the difficulties we face today. Either we would have to cave in and accept the new realities, with devastating results to the area’s stability and our own credibility, or we would have to become the protector of a weakened Israel, which would place us in a far more uncomfortable position than in the past.

The proponents of a PLO state ask us to believe that the Palestinians, a destabilizing force in other countries, would suddenly become a stabilizing force for the entire region. They base this conclusion on the idea that terrorists—in this case the PLO under Arafat—become moderate once they are running their own government. Supporters of this position often cite Menachem Begin’s transformation from guerrilla leader to Prime Minister. But even if one ignores the historical difference that Begin’s Irgun focused on military targets while the PLO attacks innocent women and children, there is the even more crucial difference that Begin did not achieve power until almost thirty years after the establishment of the Jewish state. Indeed, it is doubtful that the Zionists would have received the public support they did during the 1940’s if Begin had represented the movement instead of being the leader of a minority, and a tiny minority at that. The Zionists were led in those years by such men as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion—there are no analogous moderate figures in the PLO today.

The notion that PLO leaders will be transformed upon achieving power blinks the many examples of the opposite tendency. To cite but a few recent “terrorist statesmen”: Idi Amin in Uganda, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. American hostages in Iran were held not by a subsidiary terrorist group but by a sovereign government. Indeed, there is far more evidence that terrorists continue to employ terrorist methods when they become leaders of sovereign governments than evidence to the contrary.

Nor would the presence of a PLO state help resolve the problems faced by the United States in the area. In the last few years we have seen the replacement of the Shah of Iran by an unstable and anti-American regime; a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the strengthening of Soviet bases of operations in South Yemen and Ethiopia; a war between the two Yemens, and another between the oil-producing states of Iran and Iraq. None of these developments was connected to the Palestinian question. A PLO state is not going to resolve the Iran-Iraq conflict, the problem of internal instability in the Gulf, the future of Iran, Afghanistan, or the Horn of Africa, or the problem of Libya’s expansionist designs. There is also no reason to believe that a PLO state would help the U.S. gain bases on Saudi soil, or bring about changes in OPEC or Saudi oil policy, or result in reduced oil revenues in Arab coffers. The contrary is more likely.

For all these reasons, working for the creation of a PLO state is decidedly not in American interests.

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III

If the new consenus is simply wrong in its assessment of the possible role of the PLO, its position on the need to expand the Camp David framework is a more complex matter. It is true that the autonomy talks, after two and a half years, have not succeeded in producing an agreement; yet the question remains of what alternatives are available, and what are the implications of a different course of action.

For many people the autonomy talks have been tainted from the outset through being associated with the original agreement between Egypt and Israel, which was of course rejected by the Saudis on the “Right” and the PLO on the “Left.” Many who now declare the autonomy framework to be at or near demise were actually convinced from the outset that the talks could not succeed.

The death notices for Camp David ignore the successes achieved in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship itself. And as for the autonomy talks, extenuating circumstances have undoubtedly slowed progress. These circumstances include the intrinsic difficulties and complexities of the issues, which demand time and patience to resolve; the delays caused by the U.S. and Israeli elections; such external developments as American preoccupation with the Iranian hostages and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 and 1980, the Syrian missile crisis, and the Israeli raid on Osirak in the spring of 1981; the assassination of Anwar Sadat; the opposition to the talks of supposedly pro-Western Arab states (especially Saudi Arabia and Jordan) as well as of elements within two successive American administrations; and a whole series of specific events which have sent unfortunate signals to both the Israelis and the Egyptians. Over the last two years there has been little opportunity for the autonomy discussions to be conducted with complete seriousness, undisturbed by the maneuvering of players seeking to destroy them. Domestic politics in both Egypt and Israel have often added to the confusion.

Nevertheless, premature declarations that the venture is doomed are misplaced. The implicit assumption behind such declarations is that there are viable alternatives. Yet outside the autonomy framework the prospects for a successful agreement appear even less likely. If Israel and Egypt, who have already agreed on peace between themselves, cannot agree on a plan for the West Bank and Gaza, why should other participants, who have demonstrated less interest in peace, be more accommodating? The United States has consistently failed to convince King Hussein of Jordan to join the talks. Other possibilities—a Geneva conference, a meeting at the United Nations or under UN auspices—all involve the USSR and raise the question of how to handle PLO involvement.

Those who support an alternative to Camp David never explain how it would be possible to coax Israel into a process whose rules and format will inevitably be less advantageous to it than the discussions with Egypt. Since 1974, the Egyptian-Israeli dialogue has been the only viable arena for Middle East negotiations. It has already produced four agreements—the first Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement of January 1974, Sinai II in September 1975, the Camp David accords, and the peace treaty of March 1979. All of these ultimately successful negotiations were accompanied by gloomy predictions and an atmosphere of crisis. In 1975 Henry Kissinger, and in 1977 Jimmy Carter, toyed with the idea of broadening the process, only to discover that such a course of action was not viable. In the autonomy talks Cairo and Jerusalem are dealing not with relations between each other but with the incredibly more complex Palestinian question. It is not surprising that progress has been slow.

Since the negotiators are constantly being given artificial deadlines beyond which autonomy is supposed to be doomed, it may be useful to recall the fate of previous timetables. It took Henry Kissinger thirty-three days and many missed deadlines to conclude a disengagement agreement with Syria in 1974. He arbitrarily set March 1975 as the point after which negotiations on Sinai II would fail; they succeeded in August. At Camp David, December 1978 was set as the point of agreement on an Egyptian-Israeli’ peace treaty; success occurred in March 1979. Diplomacy is not a labor negotiation; though deadlines may on occasion be useful, it is psychologically debilitating for those involved continually to face junctures after which the opportunity for negotiations is assumed to have passed. It is especially damaging when accompanied by a constant diplomatic flirtation with those opposed to the process. As hints and rumors mount of a new approach (such as one centering on the Fahd plan), both sides are bound to become nervous. With other parties clamoring for PLO involvement in a settlement, the pressures on Egypt and Israel increase. Cairo is forced to insist on conditions that will inevitably lead to an independent Palestinian state, and Israel is forced to intensify its efforts to prevent that outcome.

It is often forgotten that the autonomy talks are not intended to design the permanent future of the West Bank or the Palestinian question. According to the original agreement, they are only supposed to create a set of conditions—ground rules of authority and administration, including a self-governing council—which will last for five years, with negotiations on a permanent solution to begin by the end of the third year. This framework provides a period for trial and error and further negotiations.

Pressures from within and without the region detract from this timetable. Both sides calculate that in such an atmosphere, their position after an agreement will be weakened. In a negative international climate each side is likely to conclude that it is better off without any agreement than with one that does not protect it from increased criticism and pressure.

Here the U.S. role becomes especially crucial. Washington may not be the sole determinant of success or failure, but as the most powerful participant, and the only one of the three not directly affected by the issues, it wields enormous influence. Success is unlikely so long as U.S. leaders are hesitant to back Camp David and so long as both sides anticipate future U.S. pressure or dramatic unilateral action. The U.S. may not be able to determine what Egypt and Israel do, but it can encourage success by avoiding urgency or desperation on the one hand, and indifference on the other.

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IV

A major impetus for altering the Camp David framework is Saudi opposition to the process. Yet paradoxically the notion continues to hold sway that the Saudis are essential for spreading the peace negotiations beyond Egypt and Israel. Ronald Reagan has become the prime proponent of this theory:

. . . I believe the Saudis are the key to spreading the peace throughout the Mideast instead of just having it confined to Israel and Egypt.

The idea that the Saudis are critical to U.S. efforts in the Middle East has historical origins dating back to the 1930’s. During World War II Saudi Arabia was the only noncombatant to receive lend-lease aid. In the aftermath of the Suez crisis President Eisenhower toyed with the idea of building up the Saudis into a counterweight to Nasser’s Egypt as a vehicle for U.S. influence throughout the Arab world. On each of his eleven trips to the Middle East as Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger visited Saudi Arabia. The roots of the current Saudi position of honor are traceable to the aftermath of the October 1973 war; since then, Saudi prestige has grown. With the fall of the Shah, Washington began to view the Saudis as the last pillar of U.S. policy in the Gulf. Now, in an administration committed to a world view valuing dollar diplomacy and monetary power, the Saudis are regarded as the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East as a whole, and critical to expanding the peace process.

This perspective on the Saudis is based on fundamental assumptions about their internal stability at home and the reliability of their foreign policy. Thus, the huge Saudi family is pictured as in control of an intricate system in which a delicate compromise has been accomplished between religion and politics, the needs of tradition and the opportunities of modernization. In their regional role, the Saudis are seen by the consensus as an important anti-Communist, pro-Western instrument during a disturbing period of upheaval. Not only are they important for progress in the Arab-Israeli dispute, but they will also use their wealth and influence to bring settlements to intra-Arab conflicts (as in Lebanon), to coax countries like Egypt and Somalia away from the Soviet Union, to withstand any onslaught—military or ideological—from the Ayatollah’s Iran. In energy matters, the Saudis are seen as responsible leaders who will maintain stability against such radicals as Libya and Iraq.

The fact that this image of the Saudis is inaccurate has serious implications for the course on which U.S. policy is currently embarked. Although Saudi Arabia’s moderation has become an article of faith to most Westerners dealing with the Middle East, it is a mirage. The Saudis have established their dominant position in the Arabian peninsula in this century by aggressive expansionism, by the breaking of agreements, and by an imperialistic foreign policy. Throughout this period they have been one of the least compromising of the Arab states toward Jews and Zionist aspirations. As leaders of the Muslim world, they also have a long history of hostility toward the West.

Saudi Arabia, a country with a small population and a turbulent history, is undergoing social and political upheaval as a consequence of newly acquired petro-billions. The notion that this fragile state can lead the Arab world to a new era of peace with Israel would be laughable if it were not being embraced by many of the most powerful people in the world. In his news conference aboard Air Force One returning from President Sadat’s funeral, Jimmy Carter expressed the contradictory views which have become typical of the American attitude toward the Saudis:

. . . Sadat became,’ in public at least, a pariah among the Arabs. But when I would meet with the Arab leaders, the Saudis in particular, they were hoping that this peace process would succeed. But it’s almost impossible for an Arab to step forward because of a threat of assassination or violence within their own fragile government. They don’t have the stability of a Sadat, Jordan has a weak nation. He [Hussein] is a weak leader. And the same with [Syrian President Hafez] Assad, who has a minority position in his own country. And, of course, the Saudi Arabians also have a fragile country with a tiny population, no great military strength and enormous wealth. So they don’t have the courage of Sadat and they don’t have the solid foundation that Sadat had of support of his people.

Carter argued as if political fragility and support for peace were synonymous. We are repeatedly asked by him and others to believe that the Saudis are in favor of the peace process even though they have often stated that they regard Israel—not the Soviet Union—as their principal adversary. We are also asked to ignore the effort they have expended to undermine the Camp David agreements, not only by supporting radicals like Syria and the PLO but by using their wealth to keep such states as Morocco and Jordan from supporting the accords, and by cutting off financial assistance to Egypt. The Fahd plan, recently offered as proof of Saudi moderation, is only a series of demands for Israeli concessions with no provisions for negotiation or compromise. How different the post-1979 period in the Middle East would have been if Saudi influence had truly been exercised in favor of American efforts.

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Despite its money and oil, Saudi Arabia is a backward society, with weak political institutions, suffering from the shock of sudden urbanization and a potentially explosive maldistribution of wealth. Its leadership must strike a balance between the 18th and 20th centuries, between Islamic revivalism and the impact of Western culture. These are not conditions which encourage confidence in a solid future.

Nor, contrary to the widespread image, has Saudi Arabia acted as America’s ally within OPEC. Saudi actions are guided by geological realities and the principles of economic self-interest. The Saudis do not link their decisions on production and price to progress in the Arab-Israeli dispute or to attitudes of amity, common culture, or partnership with the United States. Not only did they institute the original embargo in 1973, but they have continued to exact tribute from the West when and as they could. U.S. Senate approval of the sale of sixty F-15’s to Saudi Arabia was followed within a year not by a reduction but by a trebling of the price of oil. The announced sale of the AWACS was followed twenty-four hours later by a cut in production and a price rise of $2.00 in the cost of a barrel of oil. (After five hundred days, from this price increase alone, the Saudis will have paid for the $8.5 billion arms package.) Meanwhile, the countries which continue to suffer the most from OPEC actions are those Third World nations unfortunate enough to lack energy supplies and therefore compelled to sacrifice their future economic security on the altar of increased costs. The resulting chaos in many of these countries is likely to provide fertile ground for upheaval and subversion.

The consensus thus endorses a policy toward the Persian Gulf which is fundamentally antithetical to American global aims. It is also antithetical to the aims of Saudi Arabia’s friends both on the Left and the Right. Despite the Left’s solicitude for the Third World, the Saudis and their OPEC allies are major contributors to the expanded debt and economic decline of many of these states over the last decade. And notwithstanding the Left’s concern to prevent nuclear proliferation, the Saudis have been major financial backers of a potential Pakistani nuclear weapon. On the other side, despite the Right’s concern with the problem of international terrorism, the Saudi Arabia it wishes to strengthen is the major financial backer of the PLO—the leading terrorist organization in the world, whose guerrillas are active against American objectives even in Central America. Saudi funds also contribute to the purchase of Soviet arms in the Middle East.

Accepting the consensus on Saudi Arabia leads to a completely self-cancelling policy. The U.S. supports an Egyptian-Israeli peace, but the Saudis work to undermine it. We oppose terrorism, but the Saudis finance it. We oppose Russian advances in the area, but the Saudis indirectly assist the strengthening of the Soviet position. The consensus is leading the United States into a vise. If the current Riyadh regime survives, American dependence on Saudi insecurity and uncertainty will likely increase. If it is overthrown, the radical forces in the area will likely emerge even stronger.

In either case, the Saudis will be unable (and perhaps unwilling) to withstand Soviet gains, as the American position declines further. The current direction of U.S. policy with respect to Saudi Arabia is leading to potential disaster.

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V

The approach one takes to arms sales in the Persian Gulf is determined largely by the interpretation one accepts of the reliability and stability of the regimes there. Since 1973, the U.S. alone has agreed to sell Saudi Arabia $42.5 billion worth of military equipment. Riyadh has become America’s largest purchaser of weapons, accounting for 36 percent of all U.S. foreign military sales since 1973. In 1970, it ranked thirty-fifth in world military expenditures and spent $.4 billion on arms; in 1980, by contrast, it ranked sixth, spending $20.7 billion, more per citizen on “defense” ($2,500) than any other country in the world. In 1981, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Saudi figure was up to $27.7 billion. (By comparison, the Israelis in 1981 spent $7.3 billion, the Italians $8.9 billion, and the Japanese $11.5 billion.) Given the mutually compatible addictions of the West to cash and the Arabs to arms, this process will surely continue. While the profit motive is not inconsequential, however, ultimately our government’s approval of these arms sales rests on the premise that Saudi Arabia can survive and will work in consonance with American interests.

A truer understanding of Saudi Arabia than the one prevailing in Washington leads to very different conclusions. In general, it is difficult to understand how the tiny and ill-prepared armed forces of the Gulf will assimilate the West’s most sophisticated weaponry without suffering serious internal instability and the leaking of Western secrets to radical and pro-Soviet elements. It is even more difficult to fathom how these massive shipments of arms will enhance Western security or even insure the stable flow of energy supplies. As the fall of the Shah and the Iran-Iraq war should have amply demonstrated, sophisticated arms are more likely to advance regional disintegration than stability, and hence to facilitate the rise of radical forces.

Massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia also raise the potential of future conflict between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Although Western analysts focus on the Persian Gulf, the Saudis have continued to demonstrate their concern about Israel by upgrading three bases near its territory, at Tabuq, Turaif, and Quraiyat. Thus, Saudi Arabia is rapidly becoming a confrontation state with Israel. By the second half of this decade, the forces of the two countries could become involved in combat, either directly or in a more general regional conflict. It was certainly not in the American interest to create this additional catalyst of Middle East tensions.

As Robert W. Tucker has repeatedly pointed out in these pages,1 the most important effect of these sales is to grant American officials a false sense of confidence that U.S. security interests in the area will be protected. The Saudis themselves have made it clear that—regardless of F-15’s and AWACS—they will not permit the expansion of U.S. facilities and are opposed to the presence of U.S. forces in the Gulf. To judge from past behavior, it is inconceivable that the U.S. will be able to control the future uses by Saudi Arabia of this weaponry or that the two countries will establish a working partnership, especially since the Saudis—if they survive—mean to pursue a more nonaligned policy.

When other arguments fail, the supporters of arms sales rely on the proposition that unless we sell, the Europeans will. This curious posture abrogates our responsibility for our own policy and our leadership in the Western alliance. It also assumes an equivalence between American and European equipment which the Arab states of the area obviously do not accept; otherwise they would deal with the Europeans exclusively and avoid the political controversies that arise when they buy in the U.S. As in the case of AWACS, U.S. equipment is often irreplaceable. Moreover, we can hardly expect to influence allied policy when we ourselves have taken the lead in the sale of weapons. One suspects the Europeans are being used as excuses for policies determined on other grounds.

It is also said that if we do not sell, the Gulf states will purchase their weapons from the Russians. This reveals the total lack of faith in the reliability of particular client states in the area which American policy-makers are otherwise at pains to deny. What is worse, it surrenders to the Kremlin the initiative for determining our policy. By offering weapons to the Gulf states the Soviets cannot lose. Either they will acquire new clients or they will goad the U.S. into damaging its own interests by overarming individual countries to counter potential Russian moves.

All this is yet a further reflection of the tendency within the consensus to accept the demands of local states as the basis for determining U.S. policy. In this way our policy becomes hostage to regimes that are too divided to fend for themselves and too weak to do us any good.

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VI

The question remains as to whether the consensus is accurate in its criticism of Israel and in particular the government of Prime Minister Begin.

Begin’s is not the first Israeli government to annoy the United States. Such tensions have been endemic to the relationship from the outset. One President, for example, threatened that if Israel did not withdraw its troops from Egyptian territory immediately and did not alter its negotiating strategy, “this government would have no other course than to undertake a substantial review of its attitude toward Israel.” The President so furious with Israeli actions was not Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, or Reagan, but Harry Truman at the end of 1948.

It is difficult to imagine any Israeli government that would accept the policies advocated by the new consensus. While Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State, long before Begin became Prime Minister, many U.S. officials were labeling Israeli policy “intransigent.” Israel was accused of having a weak, collegial government incapable of making the necessary concessions. When in mid-1977 the country elected a strong leadership, which then proceeded to make the most sweeping concessions in the nation’s history, the criticism only continued.

This particular pattern has been in place ever since October 1973, when it began to appear to Western elites that the solution to the energy crisis lay in an Arab-Israeli settlement. Recently Richard Nixon attracted shocked attention when he denounced America’s Jews and the Begin government for their opposition to the AWACS sale, but as early as December 1973 he had told a group of Governors:

The only way we’re going to solve the crisis is to end the oil embargo, and the only way we’re going to end the embargo is to get the Israelis to act reasonable. I hate to use the word blackmail, but we’ve got to do some things to get them to behave.

By 1975, Zbigniew Brzezinski was writing:

It is impossible to seek a resolution to the energy problem without tackling head-on—and doing so in an urgent fashion—the Arab-Israeli conflict. Without a settlement of that issue in the near future, any stable arrangement in the energy area is simply not possible.

These attitudes have not been affected either by the fall of the Shah or the Iran-Iraq war (both unrelated to Israel) or, on the other hand, by Israel’s agreement to return to Egypt the oilfields, air bases, and settlements of the Sinai.

The Begin government’s hawkish style and its tendency to invite international isolation are undeniably factors to be taken into consideration. But what is ignored in all the tactical and even the substantive criticisms of the Begin government are the actual concessions it has already made—which are enormous—and the continuing unwillingness of most Arab countries to accept a peace process which does not guarantee their maximal demands from the outset.

The critical question, however, is not Begin’s flexibility or lack of it, but whether or not the American policies he opposes are in fact in American interests. To advocates of the consensus, Begin is a disaster because he is trying to prevent its ideas from being adopted and effected. But if the consensus is wrong in its estimate of American interests, Begin appears in an altogether different light. The question then becomes how the U.S. and Israel can work together on such mutual concerns as the peace process and strategic cooperation, goals for which America has as much responsibility as Israel.

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The recent application of Israeli law to the Golan Heights and the American response to it—suspension of the strategic cooperation agreement—are symptomatic of what is wrong with the U.S.-Israel relationship. The episode reflects a shocking lack of understanding by each side of developments within the other. As a consequence, both governments are currently taking actions that strengthen those who advocate a more independent policy line.

Prime Minister Begin’s decision to extend Israeli law to the Golan may have been superb domestic politics; it preempted Israeli hawks who have been opposed to the withdrawal from Sinai and who have been arguing for intervention in Lebanon. The act itself was of minimal scope—only ratifying the application of Israeli law which had operated de facto in the area since 1969—and it was followed by a statement by Israel’s ambassador to the UN that all issues in dispute with Syria remained negotiable. But in terms of Israel’s relations with the United States it was at best ill-advised, reflecting a lack of recognition of the new consensus here.

On the American side, the suspension of the strategic accord represented the kind of overreaction which is built into the consensus, with its demand for placing distance between the United States and Israel. If American officials genuinely believed that the accord was in U.S. interests, then its suspension was irrational. If strategic cooperation was not considered useful to the U.S., the agreement should not have been concluded in the first place. The agreement was originally favored by those within the administration who believed it would serve as a means of controlling Israel (others feared that it would interfere with future American operations in the area and would dampen the possibilities of cooperation with the Arab states). The agreement, a payoff for the conflict with Israel over the AWACS, was justified as a means of preventing unexpected and unwanted actions by the Israeli government. In the course of internal administration wrangling, the agreement was so diluted that it ended up aligning Jerusalem with the United States against the Soviet Union for no discernible reward in return. Thus one had the worst of both worlds: both governments were dissatisfied with the outcome, Washington because it went too far and Jerusalem because it did not go far enough, Not surprisingly, within days of its conclusion it became the cause rather than the cure of future tension.

There is a disingenuous quality to the constant criticism of Israel. Intransigent or immoderate Arab actions are explained away by reference to internal or regional developments: the Saudis are afraid of the radicals; Arafat is a moderate but cannot act without the extremists in the PLO; Assad is worried about his internal opposition; etc. But when Menachem Begin, the leader of a democratic government, takes account of his opposition, somehow this is regarded as impermissible.

The contradiction in U.S. attitudes is reinforced by Israel’s standing as an ally, and as a particularly friendly one at that. By now most West European countries—however democratic—do not share America’s global outlook. Israel, unlike most of its Arab neighbors, does. But this very acceptance of America’s global philosophy has been turned into a liability; Israeli contributions to American interests are taken for granted, and even denigrated. Great powers that treat their loyal allies with contempt should not be surprised when those (and other) allies begin to turn against them.

The bipartisan consensus presupposes tension and crisis with Israel. Indeed, it assumes that without tensions its policy will not work. What advocates of the consensus fail to explain is how American policy will function at all in the Middle East without close coordination with Jerusalem. Conflicts with Israel are bound to have a detrimental effect on America’s ability to promote a successful conclusion of the autonomy talks. The tragedy of recent American policy is that in Israeli eyes it has eroded the position of the U.S. as a viable guarantor of future arrangements. With each succeeding crisis in U.S.-Israel relations the Israelis become more accustomed to being criticized. In this way Washington has trained them to act irrespective of American concerns. The Israelis would have to be naive to place their trust in an American policy which cannot honor previous commitments to its own Congress (as in the F-15 add-ons), let alone to them (as in the strategic accord).

_____________

 

VII

Criticism of Israel has placed the Jews of the West in a peculiarly uncomfortable position. When they themselves voice doubts about particular Israeli policies, such doubts are magnified and cited as proof of the dereliction of the Jerusalem government. By contrast, support of Israel—even on issues which command the wide support of non-Jews as well (as in the dispute over AWACS)—has led to charges of dual loyalty and excessive Jewish “power.” These charges emanate from quarters that see the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora as impediments to consensus policy.

In the summer 1981 issue of Foreign Affairs, Republican Senator Charles McC. Mathias, Jr. of Maryland wrote that “ethnic politics, carried as they often have been to excess, have proven harmful to the national interest.” This, like most recent criticism of “ethnic lobbies,” is actually directed expressly against the American Jewish community for its support of Israel. Similar sentiments have come from Representative Paul N. McCloskey, Jr. (R., Calif.):

It should not be anti-Semitic to say that the Israeli lobby is powerful or that this lobby has controlled the Congress on issues involving Israel.

And the same attitude was reflected in the conscious decision of the pro-AWACS forces to portray the issue as a choice between Begin and Reagan, complaining about foreign influence (as the President did at one point) even while encouraging direct Saudi lobbying on behalf of the sale, and murmuring darkly about the undue power of Israel’s Jewish supporters. Former President Nixon said explicitly that had it not been for some American Jews, the sale would not have become controversial—as if none of the other, mostly non-Jewish, opponents, including three-fourths of the House and about one-half the Senate, could think for themselves.

These arguments, of course, have not the slightest connection with the pros and cons of whether the U.S. should sell AWACS to Saudi Arabia—indeed, they only reflect the weakness of the administration’s case. They also reflect widespread misconceptions about where the real influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East resides. The fact that the AWACS proposal could be offered in the first place was a monument to the American Jews’ lack of control over U.S. policy.

In any case, Presidents do not make their foreign-policy decisions with primary reference to domestic political considerations. Although Nixon frequently complains in his memoirs about the influence of the American Jewish community, he goes on to demonstrate how he acted in disregard of its preferences. Henry Kissinger, in White House Years, confirms that Nixon prided himself on his willingness to ignore domestic politics in his decision-making. It is true that actions favorable to Israel are often revealed before elections, and unfavorable actions delayed until afterward, but in general Presidents seek to act in ways that they believe to be consistent with the national interest or, as Truman often put it, “what is right.” Indeed, they often bend over backward to avoid the accusation of acting for political benefit. Eisenhower in his memoirs points with pride to his rebuke of Israel during the Suez crisis in the days before the 1956 election—despite warnings that he would be punished at the polls.

The most disturbing aspect of the “ethnic-lobbies” argument, however, is that it concentrates on one type of influence over American foreign policy while ignoring the effect of such interests as bankers, corporations, labor, political ideologues, the press and media, religious groups, the universities, think tanks. In particular, the AWACS debate demonstrates the influence that corporations and foreign oil producers—especially Saudi Arabia—can exercise over the decision-making process.

Long before Charles Mathias was discovering problems with ethnic lobbies, Thomas Jefferson was warning us that “Merchants have no country of their own. Wherever they may be, they have no ties with the land or the soil. All they are interested in is the source of their profits.” The problem that we are facing today is the billions of dollars available to oil producers, which enable them to dazzle diplomatic and’ military officials, corporation executives, and academics. The opportunities for conflict of interest are infinite. The ability of the Libyans to buy high technology, former CIA officials, university professorships, mercenaries, and even assassins points to the kind of danger we will continue to face over the next years.

To economists the interchange of dollars is simply a recycling mechanism, but these exchanges are having a significant impact (which is likely to grow) on American politics and American society. “Good politics is good business,” one Saudi businessman told his American clients during the AWACS debate. When former Senator J. William Fulbright speaks out on Middle East issues, few Americans realize that his law firm, Hogan and Hartson, is now registered as a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The conflict of interest which the profit motive encourages is likely to continue to pollute and corrupt any attempts at serious discussion of U.S. Middle East policy.

_____________

 

VIII

In short, American policy is undergoing severe difficulties in the Middle East because a bipartisan consensus is urging tactics which are based on an inaccurate understanding of reality and which lead in directions inimical to American interests. But there is an alternative view—one which above all spares us our growing subordination to Saudi Arabia, and releases us from the burden of identifying Saudi interests with our own.

The Saudis prefer an Arab world united behind their leadership. For this reason and for others, adherents of the consensus have entertained visions of a comprehensive solution to the Middle East crisis. But as far as the U.S. is concerned, working toward a comprehensive solution is a way of encouraging, rather than discouraging, radical destabilization and crisis. As the Carter administration discovered when it sought to arrange a Geneva conference in 1977, attempts to unify the Arab world give undue influence to uncompromising states like Syria, which can block initiatives that moderates on their own are not strong enough to accept. The only way the United States could deal with the Arab world as a whole would be to adopt positions consistent with the least compromising states. Since Washington can never move far enough to satisfy these states, any comprehensive policy is bound to fail. American concessions are only followed by increased demands, as Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter discovered in 1974, 1975, and 1977. We would be better served by separating the issues into manageable categories, and by dealing with states individually.

The alternative view also frees us from preoccupation with the Palestinian question. For even if the Palestinian issue could somehow miraculously be solved, the many competing states in the area are hardly likely to discontinue their rivalries and conflicts. In the meantime, the U.S. has many more problems in the area beyond the West Bank: the future of Iran, Afghanistan, the Yemens, Lebanon, the Horn; the protection of sea lanes and oil supplies; the prevention of the spread of Soviet and radical influence; the general instability of the entire region.

The alternative view suggests that the Palestinian question is more likely to be resolved in a different context. By regarding the autonomy talks as a process without deadlines, the U.S. could play a more positive role in the negotiations. The Saudis may say that a Palestinian solution is an immediate requirement, but the U.S., which has a complex set of interests in the area, must be concerned with the details—and that takes time. Encouraging rather than downplaying the process of normalization between Egypt and Israel would be one positive step.

Just as the alternative view urges attention to a diversity of interests beyond the Palestinian question, so too it urges avoidance of a single “pillar” of U.S. policy. Rather, it would urge the development of close relations with countries which have traditionally played strategic roles in the area and which are today friendly to the United States and sympathetic to the peace process. Besides Egypt, obvious candidates include Oman and Turkey, as well as Kenya, Somalia, and the Sudan. Each offers facilities and a geographical location which could be critical to future U.S. efforts.

The alternative perspective also places Israel in a totally different light, for it recognizes the elementary importance of gaining Israel’s trust and confidence as a means of promoting further negotiations. In security terms, it identifies Israel as an asset rather than a liability. Until he assumed office, Ronald Reagan was the most articulate American politician arguing this point. As he wrote in August 1979:

The fall of Iran has increased Israel’s value as perhaps the only remaining strategic asset in the region on which the United States can truly rely; other pro-Western states in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf kingdoms, are weak and vulnerable. Israel’s strength derives from the reality that her affinity with the West is not dependent on the survival of an autocratic or capricious ruler. Israel has the democratic will, national cohesion, technological capacity, and military fiber to stand forth as America’s trusted ally. . . .

The consensus asks Americans to rely on unstable regimes, to engage in dialogue with terrorist movements, and to relinquish U.S. independence and freedom of maneuver to wealthy sheikdoms. It is ultimately based on an unholy coalition of the Left and the Right. What masquerades as a common view of the national interest is in fact nothing more than a temporary marriage of convenience between different groups, each of which is pursuing its own interest.

The consensus is leading the U.S. into positions which are inherently self-destructive, and which will culminate logically in the restriction of energy supplies, the victory of radical and pro-Soviet forces, and the decline of U.S. influence. If we do not change our ways, the consequences are likely to be stark indeed.


Footnotes

1 See especially “The Middle East: Carterism Without Carter?” (September 1981) and “Appeasement & the AWACS” (December 1981).

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