Commentary Magazine


Toward a Middle East Alternative

A peculiarity of the Camp David accords is that they lend themselves to two opposing visions of the future of the Middle East. In the first vision, held by the Carter administration, the accords are a critical vehicle, but the core of the conflict in the area is the Palestinian issue and therefore an Egyptian-Israeli peace must be linked to a resolution of the future of the West Bank and Gaza. In the second vision, held by many of the administration’s critics, an Egyptian-Israeli peace can stand by itself and the Palestinian issue is only one of a host of problems in the area that American policy should confront in the immediate future. To the proponents of the latter vision, a Cairo-Jerusalem rapprochement opens new opportunities for American policy and should be pursued as the basis for developing a new strategy.

In this sense the two documents which make up the Camp David accords are contradictory and coexist uneasily, for they suggest competing strategies. To the administration, Camp David presented the opportunity to produce a comprehensive settlement. When Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the West Bankers demurred, the accords themselves became less useful and the primary aim became to protect Washington’s position among pro-American Arabs and to convince them that Camp David constituted the kind of approach in which their interests could be satisfied. To the critics, Egyptian-Israeli relations were always central, not merely a step toward the resolution of other issues. The most important aim, for these observers, was to achieve a Cairo-Jerusalem peace treaty and then move to the structuring of a different order in the region.

These two positions are thus divergent in philosophy, outlook, and the policies they prescribe. They have been, and are likely to remain, at the heart of the national debate over American Middle East policy. The direction of American policy in the area, the fate of American interests, and perhaps the next American election will be determined by the outcome of the national discussion which is currently proceeding. The stakes are thus very high and the rhetorical confrontation has been and will continue to be fierce.

Both sides agree as to the nature of the problems the United States faces in the Middle East: energy, Soviet encroachment, the vulnerability of pro-American and oil-rich regimes to radical assault, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian issue, Lebanon, Iran. But each side places these issues in a different context, with a resulting difference in priorities and emphasis.

To the administration, East-West (or Soviet-American) issues are giving way to North-South (or have vs. have-not) questions in international affairs. Economic matters (both among the Western allies and between the West and the developing nations) are becoming more prominent in a world growing more interdependent. The Third World’s claims against the West for a greater share of wealth must be taken seriously and accommodated. As the President put it at the 1977 Notre Dame commencement, in his most significant foreign-policy address thus far: “We know that a peaceful world cannot long exist one-third rich and two-thirds hungry.”

The administration’s Middle East policy follows from this view of the world. The emphasis on economic factors and Third World ideology leads to a diminished focus on the Soviet threat and a heightened concern that anti-American regimes or movements may undermine pro-American oil producers. For the first time since World War II, an American administration sees energy and not Moscow as the central global challenge facing the United States in the Middle East.

Given Saudi Arabia’s crucial world role in energy and finances, this perspective leads to a strong reliance on Riyadh as the linchpin of American policy. Saudi Arabia is closely associated with the United States, but the common view is that Washington’s failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict will lessen Saudi interest in the American connection and also unleash radical forces (particularly Palestinian) against the regime in Riyadh. The way, then, to keep the Saudis satisfied and safe (and therefore to keep the energy problem manageable) is to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such a settlement must, in this view, include a major resolution of the Palestinian question. As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in 1975: “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.” And since the Palestinians have become a rallying cry for “progressive” Third World forces at the UN and elsewhere, this orientation fits neatly into the general conception of world affairs prevalent among the Carter team.

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This Weltanschauung explains why the administration at first favored the “Geneva” approach involving a conference of all parties to the conflict under the joint chairmanship of the United States and the Soviet Union. Syria was wooed because of its connection with both moderates and radicals. Including the PLO would have protected the Saudis from accusations of having deserted the Arab cause if they supported American policy. And involving Moscow would have made it easier to arrive at the kind of comprehensive settlement which, it was thought, would protect pro-American clients even at the price of increased Soviet influence in the area.

It was the failure of these efforts that prompted the Sadat visit to Jerusalem. Given its ideological blinders, it is not surprising that the administration initially responded with coldness and bewilderment to the visit. Only after the debate unleashed in this country over the sale of advanced jets to Egypt and Saudi Arabia did the administration come to terms with the reality that no other option than the Sadat initiative existed for promoting peace in the area. Out of the fear that the failure of this initiative would result in a new war—with the dreaded cycle of Israeli victory, Arab oil embargo, energy-supply disruption, gas-station lines—the Camp David strategy was conceived. But Camp David was undertaken as a desperate means not only or even primarily of keeping the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations alive; it was seen as a way of saving the original comprehensive approach.

Thus President Carter said plainly in his speech to Congress at the conclusion of the summit: “I have already invited the other leaders of the Arab world to help sustain progress toward a comprehensive peace.” A few days later Carter suggested what that comprehensive peace was about:

There are three elements that no Arab leader would ignore, nor on which they would yield, including Sadat. One is Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank-Gaza Strip territory; secondly, a return of eastern Jerusalem to Arab sovereignty, possibly excluding the Hebrew University area, and probably excluding the Jewish holy places, particularly the Wailing Wall. And the third one is a resolution of the Palestinian question, “in all its aspects.”

On these three points, over which the Israelis were just as unlikely to yield, the President thus indicated where his influence was to be exerted. And in case anyone had any doubt, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs, Harold Saunders, was soon sent to Amman with replies to King Hussein’s questions about the accords. The answers he brought with him were rumored to contain assurances that Israeli settlements on the West Bank would be withdrawn as part of any future peace agreement—a report which gained substance when Saunders met with Arab notables in Jerusalem and commented that the United States regarded the eastern half of the city as “occupied territory.” Reports also circulated in Washington that American officials would like to revise the September 1975 agreement with Israel in which—among other promises—the then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had agreed not to deal with the PLO unless it recognized Security Council Resolution 242 and the right of Israel to exist. This rumor, too, seemed confirmed in an obscure report (never denied) which appeared in the Jordan Times of Amman in mid-October, based on what the reporter claimed was a series of interviews with “senior American Mideast experts.” According to one such official, “We can get some PLO people into the negotiations, but not the big names.”

It was clear by now that U.S. officials feared that once an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed, the chances of moving on toward a comprehensive settlement would be lost. They were therefore trying to set up a series of preconditions which would force continued Israeli concessions over the West Bank. One official told the Jordan Times: “What we want to do is start an irreversible process in the West Bank which would be tantamount to ending the Israeli military occupation in most of its visible forms. We are trying to create a new reality on the ground in the Middle East to which all people would have to react.” As part of this process, commitments made to Israel at Camp David were being interpreted in their weakest light and the United States was remaining tough on aid to Israel for the removal of heavy equipment from the Sinai to the Negev and the building of two new air bases there.

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Many critics in Congress and elsewhere have found these administration efforts perplexing and misguided. To these critics, American policy in the Middle East should be designed to contain the Soviet Union, not Israel. They are concerned about Soviet encroachments in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and South Yemen, and about radical anti-Western nationalists like Libya’s Qaddafi, who are willing to cooperate with the spread of Soviet power in the Persian Gulf. This seems to them a greater threat to the energy supplies of the West than a future oil embargo. They are thus more prone to emphasize strategic and geopolitical factors (such as who will maintain control of the critical Straits of Hormuz, gateway to the oilfields) than to ask who has how many dollars in Swiss banks.

In this light, Israel is seen as an asset because of its political stability, its unswerving opposition to Soviet power, and the utility of its intelligence sources throughout the area. Iran is also viewed as essential to American interests, less for its oil production and reserves (surpassed by Saudi Arabia) than because of its pivotal strategic location, its protective military role in the Persian Gulf. If Iran were to be radicalized, either cooperation or competition with Iraq would arise. Either way, pressures would increase on the Saudis for more hawkish policies on questions of international finance within OPEC and the regime in Riyadh would be threatened by radical forces within and without its borders. Already, moves toward the Soviet Union in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and South Yemen have cast a shadow over the politics of the Gulf. “It can happen here,” becomes a prominent whisper among political elites.

From this perspective, the administration’s ideological preoccupation with the Palestinian question has clouded its perception of, and damaged its ability to deal effectively with, the more serious threat to American interests in the Middle East. Iran, where the only alternatives being considered seem to be all-out military intervention or occasional verbal outbursts by the President in favor of the Shah, is one example. Lebanon is another.

In Lebanon, a Syrian hegemony would lead to a future confrontation with Israel and would increase tension on the “eastern front”—especially if an Iraqi-Syrian rapprochement should proceed. Yet in Lebanon, a counterbalance exists in the form of the Christian forces seeking, with Israeli assistance, to maintain their identity and continued independence. If the Christians hold out and force the Syrians out of Lebanon, which has become Syria’s Vietnam, then the basis for a resolution of the conflict founded on the stalemate among existing forces will have been established. But if this occurs, it will be in spite of rather than because of American policy. The Carter administration tends to see the Christians as an aristocracy fighting to maintain its position and wealth in the country, and little concern has therefore been expressed about the consequences if the Soviet-armed Syrians and their Muslim allies within the country emerge victorious. Thus at a critical moment in late September, when the Syrian “peacekeepers” were bombing Christian neighborhoods in Beirut, the White House exerted the full weight of its political influence in Congress behind $90 million in economic aid for Syria. Simultaneously, it allowed discussions to proceed on the sale to Damascus of four L-100 jets—which is the civilian equivalent of the much vaunted C-130 of Entebbe fame. As also in the case of the potential threat to the Persian Gulf, American actions convey signals, and here Washington’s willingness to countenance a major Syrian role in Lebanon was a conclusion that key regional leaders were bound to draw. The Russians were having their revenge for Camp David, with American assistance.

Again, from this perspective, the Palestinian issue was another arena where the wrong signals were being conveyed. The Palestinian question is certainly important and must be confronted by American policy, but critics of the administration argue that this problem should be placed in the context of other, more pressing Middle East issues. Even if the West Bank/Gaza entity which the administration advocates does come into existence, the problems will remain—energy, Iran, the future of the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, a growing Soviet presence, the fragility of oil-rich pro-American regimes. As Elie Kedourie has written:

It by no means follows that a settlement—even a pro-Arab settlement—of the Arab-Israeli conflict will necessarily safeguard American interests in Saudi Arabia. Such a settlement will not do away with radicalism and instability in the Arab world, and will thus by no means lessen the threat to the present Saudi regime. It may even, conceivably, increase it. . . .

The critics of the administration have an alternative approach of their own: it is more activist, less defeatist, and paradoxically more comprehensive in its approach to the Middle East as a whole. Because it is propounded by individuals who are out of power and disparate in motive and ideology, it often appears less coherent. But that appearance is deceptive.

So far as the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned, this alternative strategy would first have been designed to encourage the rapid signing of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and then to encourage the Jordanians and the West Bankers to negotiate with Israel on the basis of the first model. Thus, Egypt would have been pressed to leave the West Bank/Gaza issues until later while proceeding with plans for positive acts of normalization with Jerusalem. Israel would have been rewarded for its Sinai concessions with ample aid to cover the expensive move to the Negev and would have been encouraged to adopt the Egyptian-Israeli normalization as a model for the future resolution of issues on other fronts. The Jordanians, the West Bankers, and the Saudis would have been informed, in no uncertain terms, that the United States expected them to participate in negotiations with Israel on precisely this basis.

The second element of this strategy envisions the promotion of Egyptian-Israeli normalization as a top priority. Some advocates of this approach have gone so far as to recommend that the United States set up a kind of Marshall Plan for the Middle East based on those countries willing to cooperate in moves toward regional integration and therefore beginning, if necessary, only with Cairo and Jerusalem. At the heart of these suggestions is the realization that a stable relationship between Egypt and Israel cannot develop without positive and concrete steps that create an irreversible process which will withstand political differences and changes in leadership. The advocates of this strategy also recognize that unless Egyptian-Israeli contacts succeed, the Middle East peace process is likely to end abruptly because the Israelis will be disillusioned with contacts with their Arab neighbors and the moderate Arabs will have no model on which to base future dealings with Israel except support for terrorism and war.

But for this alternative strategy the Arab-Israeli conflict is only one element of a wider geopolitical context, and it addresses itself to the other elements as well. Thus it would involve a new approach toward Lebanon aimed at achieving a stalemate through support for Christian self-sufficiency followed by a negotiated reconcilation. In Iran, it would mean greater emphasis on the pivotal strategic role of the country, a higher priority given to preserving a pro-American regime. In the Persian Gulf as a whole, it would mean recognition of the strategic dangers inherent in the Soviet role in such peripheral countries as Ethiopia and Afghanistan, and it would mean plans devised for countering the negative momentum created by these Russian gains. These plans would be pursued short of military intervention but in a manner that could check the political and psychological defeatism which promotes unfavorable political adjustments by local regimes and movements. For even if current Soviet objectives are limited and circumscribed, Moscow is bound to gain from a tide of local anti-Western nationalism (as, for example, it has done in Libya despite the anti-Communism of Qadddafi’s regime).

The main instrument would be to develop a “cooperative system” among countries of the area willing to align themselves with the United States—Iran, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabi, Jordan, Oman, Morocco, Tunisia, the Sudan. Several proponents of this strategy have suggested a multilateral alliance, but a formal mechanism reminds participants too much of Dulles’s pactomania and may be politically provocative to countries associated with the USSR. Instead, American diplomacy could simply encourage contacts and informal coordination among friends of Washington. There are precedents. For example, in 1971 Sadat saved the current Sudanese regime from a pro-Communist coup by flying home loyal Sudanese troops stationed along the Suez Canal. In the summer of 1977, Israel passed Sadat information on a planned Libyan-sponsored coup in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

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A “cooperative system” would serve several purposes. First, it would place new Arab-Israeli contacts in a wider context which could well deepen and solidify them. Second, it would demonstrate an American determination to exercise a newly-regained activist role in defense of American security interests in the entire area. Third, it would serve as a warning to radical movements and regimes that those countries which stand with the United States would be prepared to resist, as a group, assaults on their integrity and security. Fourth, it would create a framework in which interested countries in the area could help each other as they saw fit to withstand mutually perceived dangers. (Sadat’s fear of Soviet-Cuban encroachments in Africa—a fear Begin could comprehend—seems to have been one of the factors leading to his Jerusalem visit.) Fifth, a cooperative system would avoid the pattern of the Nixon era when individual states were singled out for “proxy status,” thereby exposing them to charges of subservience to Washington without the countervailing protection of regional cooperation.

Most important, a cooperative system would allow Washington to make detailed plans with local participants to withstand what must be recognized as an inevitable onslaught on the Persian Gulf regional structure. Much as NATO was organized to provide stability in the key world crisis a generation ago, so too even a more informal Middle East regional system could strengthen local leaders sufficiently to deter assaults against them.

At Notre Dame, President Carter told us:

It is a new world, but America should not fear it. It is a new world, and we should help to shape it. It is a new world that calls for a new American foreign policy—a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in its historical vision.

Ironically, however, the President’s policies in the Middle East are based on pessimism and a historical vision rooted in the old world we have known since 1948. The actions of his administration reflect an inability to perceive the implications of the dramatic changes which are occurring as a result of Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem or to adjust to the challenges posed by the political vulnerability of the Persian Gulf.

Ironically, too, it is the critics of Carter’s administration who have heeded the President’s words. They have correctly sensed the opportunity which the new Egyptian-Israeli connection provides for addressing the Arab-Israeli problem in particular and the Middle East structure as a whole. But they have also understood that a mixture of impatience over the Palestinian question, pessimism over American power, and passivity in the face of threats to critical American concerns will only result in lost opportunities and a deteriorating American position.

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