Commentary Magazine

In Defense of Camp David

The Carter administration’s Middle East policy began in the shadows of a report by the Brookings Institution which declared that “peace-making efforts should henceforth concentrate on negotiation of a comprehensive settlement.” Most of 1977 was spent in a futile effort to reconvene the Geneva conference, culminating in a joint U.S.-Soviet statement of October 1. At that point, Anwar Sadat, able to recognize stalemate even if Washington could not, saved U.S. diplomacy “in spite of itself” by interposing his own dramatic peace initiative. Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem caught Washington flat-footed; the administration could hardly avoid the conclusion that it must be a good thing, but Carter quickly confirmed that it would not deflect him from his pursuit of the Holy Grail:

We . . . have taken the position . . . that a separate peace agreement between Egypt and Israel is not desirable. This is predicated upon the very viable hope that a comprehensive settlement can be reached among all the parties involved.

Thus, when Egypt and Israel began bilateral negotiations, Secretary of State Vance insisted that such meetings should only “pave the way toward an ultimate Geneva conference.” And throughout the first half of 1978 the United States supported enlargement of the agenda to include more divisive issues.

By the time of the Egypt-Israel meeting in Leeds, England, in July 1978, insistence upon a “package deal” had again paralyzed negotiations by linking soluble issues to the most intractable aspects of the entire Arab-Israel complex. At this point the U.S., badly in need of results rather than the preservation of doctrinal purity, convened the Camp David meeting and set its sights on what could be achieved rather than what defied solution. The result, to be sure, falls far short of a framework for a comprehensive peace; consider the vagueness of the general framework as opposed to the precision of the Egypt-Israel document. But that is exactly what made the Camp David accords possible—namely, a recognition of the value of agreements with only some of the parties and on only some of the issues.

By this time, two years of its own experience, reinforced by the lessons of the Kissinger period, might have led the Carter administration to a clearer recognition of the requirements for diplomatic progress on Arab-Israel issues. Progress had been achieved when issues were separated rather than linked, when negotiations were pursued bilaterally rather than en masse, when uncooperative parties were excluded rather than courted, when diplomacy was conducted privately rather than through the media, when the United States served as honest broker rather than trying to impose its own conceptions—and when the overall aim was conceived as a process of building peace gradually rather than as the achievement of an all-encompassing one-time solution. Instead, U.S. diplomacy after Camp David returned to its comfortable habits, diverted only temporarily by a spasm of realism when the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was at stake. Consider the following activity in the wake of Camp David:

  • Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders reassures Jordanians and West Bank Arabs that the United States envisions total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, including settlements, in any future peace agreement.
  • The U.S. Consul in Jerusalem and members of his staff engage in high-profile consultations with West Bank Arabs, including PLO supporters.
  • The Carter administration wages a valiant fight for its full $90-million aid request for Syria—immediately after that country has rejected the Camp David framework in vitriolic terms.
  • Following the earlier sale of F-15’s to Saudi Arabia (justified as a reward for moderation) the administration meets Saudi opposition to Camp David by approving another $5.1 billion in arms sales during fiscal 1979. In addition, rejectionist Libya is allowed to buy militarily useful 727’s and 747’s, and Jordan’s Hussein is allotted 300 M-60 tanks. In December 1979, there is a further sale to Saudi Arabia of some 6,500 advanced missiles and bombs, including 916 Maverick missiles and 660 Sidewinder missiles.
  • After Camp David and during the Egypt-Israel peace talks, U.S. negotiators press for closer “linkage” to a general settlement, forcing Sadat to demand no less. When Israel rejects an American proposal that would essentially make the Egypt-Israel peace treaty conditional on progress elsewhere, Carter angrily and publicly blames Israel for the impasse.
  • When the Egyptian-Israeli treaty is finally signed, the United States immediately makes a number of gestures toward those whose exclusion had made the achievement possible. Carter publicly restates his previously-rejected offer to open contact with the PLO if it accepts UN Security Council Resolution 242, stressing that he would “immediately start working directly” with that organization in such a case. Shafiq al-Hout, director of the PLO office in Beirut, is given a visa for a U.S. speaking tour, even though U.S. law forbids the admission of officials of groups that espouse terrorism.
  • The State Department’s annual review of Middle East policy, presented by Assistant Secretary Saunders in July 1979, stresses the need to accommodate rejectionist states and argues that “negative reaction in the Arab world has demonstrated the validity of our premise that there must be a comprehensive peace that achieves acceptance of Israel by all of its neighbors and an honorable and secure peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.”
  • In the West Bank autonomy talks, the United States suddenly proposes discussion of legislative powers for the elected authority, voting rights and repatriation of Palestinian Arabs living outside the West Bank, and inclusion of East Jerusalem representatives—thereby going well beyond what even Egypt had proposed for the immediate agenda.
  • Similarly, U.S. special envoy Robert Strauss proposes that the issue of Jerusalem, which the Camp David framework wisely defers to a later stage, be given top priority in negotiations.
  • The U.S. pledge of no recognition of and no negotiation with the PLO is increasingly stretched in practice, especially with the growing frequency of “social encounters.” A U.S. ambassador who clearly violates the pledge (Andrew Young) resigns his post, but the impression is created that his real sin is not so much the fact of a “non-social” meeting with a PLO official as his misrepresentation of that meeting. The President allows six weeks to pass before denying publicly that “Jewish pressure” led to the envoy’s resignation, and there are indications that State Department officials knew of the meeting and did not disapprove so long as it was not public knowledge.
  • Finally, the United States tries to float a Security Council resolution that would “complement” Resolution 242 and entice the PLO to accept the 242 framework, thus making possible official U.S.-PLO ties. The effort is dropped only after protests from both Egypt and Israel that it undermines the autonomy talks.



What explains the persistence of this “fundamentalism” in the Carter administration, this dogged devotion to total salvation rather than limited but practical achievements?

In the first place, it is consonant with a traditional American style in foreign affairs; regarding conflict among nations as an aberration, Americans have tended to seek total solutions and to posit utopian goals. Carter, as a born-again Wilsonian, is nothing if not representative of this spirit. In this he is reinforced by the future-oriented globalism of his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has described the Arab-Israel conflict—and even U.S.-Soviet rivalry—as anachronistic phenomena that need to be resolved so that mankind can address the problems of the “technetronic age.” In addition, the advice of Arabists within the administration has long been loudly in favor of a comprehensive approach, since these advisers tend inevitably to be responsive to Arab thinking (and Arabs stress a “comprehensive” peace because the phrase is used to affirm that the “basic” problem of the Palestinians must be dealt with). Needless to say, the influence of the foreign-policy bureaucracy is strong when presidential leadership is weak or lacks a clear direction of its own. Thus the unanimous recommendations of Middle East advisers have tended to prevail under normal circumstances, and only in brief periods of close presidential involvement (Camp David, the treaty shuttle) has Carter overcome both bureaucratic inertia and his own natural inclination.

Another crucial element in the administration’s outlook is the link to energy and to U.S.-Saudi relations. Administration officials accept at face value the Saudi insistence that oil supply and pricing are tied to the Arab-Israel conflict. Treatment of the nation’s energy problems is thus dependent on prior resolution of the “Palestinian problem” on terms acceptable to Saudi Arabia. The administration’s sensitivity to the views of Riyadh is nothing short of remarkable; as Senator Church has said, “We have had our neck in the OPEC noose since 1973, and thus we tend to catch cold when the Saudis sneeze.”

The final link in the chain of logic is the tendency—promoted again by those most sensitized to current dogmas in the area—to regard Palestinians and the PLO as practically synonymous. The resolution of the Palestinian question is seen as the key to stability in the Middle East, and the PLO is seen as the key to the Palestinian issue. Thus there can be no serious movement toward a Middle East settlement without PLO participation. In tacitly acting on these assumptions, the administration accepts at face value the public statements of Arab states, seeing in them a sincerity not often matched in practice by even the most vocal sponsors of Arafat and company.

In such a frame of mind, the Camp David accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty indeed appear as dubious achievements.



The strengths of the Camp David framework, which are considerable, are not readily apparent when the focus is on ultimate goals. Camp David needs to be seen as part of a process in which the immediate concrete terms may be less important than the fact of the process itself. It needs to be set in the perspective of current and future trends in the area; while it demonstrates that what was unimaginable only a few years ago is now possible, it also shows clearly what is still unimaginable (but may, with patience, also become possible in the future). As documents marking a point of passage in the evolution of the conflict, Camp David and the Egypt-Israel treaty are obviously “inadequate” as a final destination, but this does not impair their significance. To quote Meg Greenfield, “Viewed as exercises in process, these documents do take on a peculiar virtue and importance way out of proportion to their actual ability to make some things happen and guarantee that others never do.”

One significant change marked by Camp David, and a peculiar strength of the peace-making process it represents, is the altered perception of interests and tactics among immediate parties. In the Egyptian view, the new state of relations with Israel is itself an improved means of gaining Israeli concessions on long-range issues. In the words of Butros Ghali, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs:

I believe that now that there is peace Egypt will have more leverage than before. . . . I will have power over, leverage over, Israel according to this normalization of relations. . . . The Israelis are interested in moving from peace-keeping to peace-building. So they want to build peace. My leverage is that it will be impossible to build the peace unless we find a solution to the Palestinian problems.

The Egyptian use of normalization as leverage on Israel might be seen as a weakness in Camp David, as an indication that commitments to the agreements are conditional. But a better reading would be that the Egyptian commitment is not based on wishful thinking or on the arbitrary whims of one man, but rather on the calculation that relations with Israel serve Egypt’s tactical interest. This is a more solid foundation than good will alone. And whether the Egyptians are right or wrong at the moment, an important watershed has been passed when a major Arab belligerent argues publicly that normalization of relations with Israel, rather than non-recognition, is a more effective means of achieving Arab goals—including the resolution of the Palestinian question.

The Egyptians obviously have a high stake in showing that they, and not their Arab critics, are correct. They have resisted procedures that would have undermined the Camp David process. They have muted their public reactions to Israeli moves that they deeply oppose, and have cooperated to head off serious crises. They have refrained from raising or stressing difficult issues that could be postponed. Had the Carter administration followed the same wise principle, the path of negotiations would have run considerably more smoothly.

The Egyptian tactical interest in Camp David is, of course, an outgrowth of the more general Egyptian interest in peace, an interest derived from the futility and costs of war, enormous economic pressures, a returning sense of Egyptian particularism, and reactions to new radical threats in the area. In many cases these Egyptian concerns are shared by Israel, so that Camp David is shored up by bilateral interests that go beyond Arab-Israel issues. Though this shared approach has only begun to find expression, it is one of the more striking aspects of the Camp David framework and should be included—though it seldom is—in any discussion of Camp David’s strengths and weaknesses.

The fact that Egypt and Israel worked out their own arrangements for joint peace-keeping operations in Sinai, with minimal U.S. help, is one indication of cooperative action going beyond treaty terms. The image of the Egyptian Minister of Defense being escorted into the inner sanctum of the Israeli Defense Ministry is yet more vivid. There have been references to “common strategic understandings” reached by Israeli and Egyptian leaders at the Alexandria meeting in July of last year, which was described by Menachem Begin as the most important meeting in two years of Egypt-Israel talks. Foremost among such understandings were, presumably, opposition to Soviet moves throughout the area, concern about the spread of Khomeini-style unrest, agreement on Lebanon (Syria should get out), and reaction to events on the Arabian peninsula. It should be stressed that the leaders of the two countries were speaking and acting not on behalf of U.S. or Western interests, though they perceived their interests similarly, but rather on behalf of their own common strategic interests—a much more solid base upon which to build.

Aside from these broader issues, Camp David has already served immediate Egyptian interests very well. Sadat, alone of all Arab leaders, has achieved the commitment of total Israeli withdrawal from all of his country’s occupied lands. In doing so, he has established the precedent of total Israeli withdrawal despite the vows of four Israeli governments that Israel would never surrender control over the Straits of Tiran (and Begin’s right-wing critics are perfectly correct in stressing just how important this precedent may turn out to be). Furthermore, Sadat can argue that, whatever its defects from the Arab point of view, the Camp David framework embodies for the first time explicit Israeli recognition that the future of the West Bank will not be determined by Israel, but by international negotiation.



The advocates of comprehensiveness will perhaps concede that the agreements serve Egyptian interests, but argue that Egypt cannot afford to ignore broader Arab interests. The isolation of Egypt in the Arab world seems to them insupportable in the long run. Of course it is not at all obvious why an Egyptian policy serving Egyptian interests should be so problematic. But let us answer the practical question: given the demonstrated hostility of other Arab states, can Egypt continue for long in “isolation”?

The strengths of Egypt’s position should not be overlooked. By virtue of location, demography, and cultural preeminence, Egypt is the natural center of gravity in the Arab world. It is not easy to “isolate” a nation that represents nearly half of all Arabs (in fact, Egypt and two relatively friendly regimes—Sudan and Morocco—together comprise well over two-thirds of the Arab world). Without Egypt, the rest of the Arab world is weak and divided; Egypt’s Arab opponents are well aware of this weakness and deeply frustrated by it—hence the violence of their response.

Egypt clearly has little to fear from external threats. It is shielded to the east by Israel, while the Sudanese regime to the south is friendly. As for Libya, Qaddafi has more to fear from Egypt than vice versa. Economic sanctions are ineffective; only a small part of Egypt’s trade has been with other Arab countries, and Egypt’s balance of payments has actually improved with the help of Western aid, remittances from Egyptians abroad, and increased revenues from oil and the canal.

Only internal upheaval (possibly promoted from without) is likely to divert Egypt from the course it has chosen. Yet neither Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem nor the signing of the peace treaty occasioned significant shows of opposition—in fact, the only mass demonstrations have been in support of Sadat. Even critics have lately admitted that Sadat “apparently” has the support of his public. To be sure, open opposition is not encouraged in Egypt, and in any event opponents might not want to upset the planned Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. But behind this is a change of attitudes in Egypt that has been noted by every close observer over the last decade: a decline in Nasserist pan-Arab-ism, and a growing assertion of Egyptian interests. In this climate, the hostility of other Arab states arouses in Egypt not trepidation, but defiance. At the same time, far from being a withdrawal from Arab affairs, Sadat’s initiatives can be seen as a bold and domestically popular reassertion of Egypt’s “rightful” role in the area. As stated by Patrick Seale:

A likely hypothesis is that the treaty is Egypt’s rebellion against the mendicant status forced upon it by the surge of revenues enjoyed by the oil producers since 1973-74. . . . Resentment of “rich Arabs,” a sentiment felt at many levels of Egyptian society, bred a determination in the leadership at least to rectify this unnatural state of affairs. Sadat’s bold peace-making, his cavalier treatment of his former allies, his outrage when Saudi Arabia and Kuwait forsook him after Camp David, all suggest that he is making a bid to regain that Arab predominance which Egyptians feel is theirs by right. As Sadat has said, there can be no war without Egypt and there can be no peace without Egypt. The trips to Jerusalem, to Camp David, and then to Washington to sign the treaty are so many “lessons” which his Arab critics have to learn and in their turn recite. This is not isolationism, but the will to reassert leadership.

It seems unlikely that Egypt will in fact remain “isolated” for very long. Splits among other Arab countries and domestic instability elsewhere (Syria, Iraq) will inevitably create points of entry for Egyptian diplomacy. Already, Morocco is quietly accepting Egyptian aid in its Saharan war. Saudis, whatever they say publicly, do not want an unstable Egypt; the Saudi tycoon Adnan Khashoggi is even now helping to finance a new telephone system for Cairo. From Tunis, the New York Times reports that at the “relocated” Arab League headquarters, the feeling is that the move “is temporary and that a way will eventually be found to move back to Cairo.”

But even if formal isolation should continue for a while, Egypt’s position is viable. Butros Ghali has announced that when an autonomy plan is concluded, Egypt will consider its responsibilities on the Palestinian question fulfilled. At that point the Palestinians will have to speak on their own behalf. If they still refuse to participate, the Egypt-Israel treaty can and will stand on its own (and should Egyptians be tempted to renege once Israeli withdrawal is complete, a demilitarized Sinai, open to quick Israeli reoccupation, would serve as hostage for future good behavior).



As a peace strategy, therefore, the Camp David framework has quite substantial strengths, and in fact U.S. policy does not so much negate them (at least intentionally) as it tries to incorporate them into something broader. Camp David is explicitly envisioned as the first chapter of a comprehensive settlement, and any conflict between the short-term requirements of effective diplomacy and the long-term vision of a peace accepted by all parties is deliberately minimized. Of course reality is not so simple: it is not possible at one and the same time to give full support to the Camp David process and full satisfaction to the Saudis and others with their own particular conception of comprehensive peace. Choices and trade-offs are inevitable; the best peace strategy is not the most effective strategy for winning Saudi applause, at least in the short run.

In making such choices, the practical dictates of successful peace-making should have priority over any other concern, both because peace is more important and because real progress is the best guarantee for achieving other goals in the long run. Pursuing the good will of the Saudis and other “moderate” Arabs on their terms, by contrast, will undercut the peace process, for the simple reason that the Saudi conception of a comprehensive settlement is unworkable.

The general unworkability of a comprehensive settlement under present circumstances should need little elaboration. In fact, the burden of proof should be on those who insist, in the face of contrary evidence, that a total settlement is feasible. The basic position of the PLO (which in Arab eyes defines Palestinian rights) and that of Israel are so far apart that any settlement would have to be imposed forcibly on one or the other or both. Comprehensiveness prevents any narrowing of this gap by tying the entire process to the most insoluble issues, the most intractable party, and the most unworkable diplomatic procedures. Continued faith in the possibility of a sudden resolution of this deeply-rooted conflict is testimony to the persistence of human optimism, but says something far less positive about one’s grasp of historic realities.

It is important to realize how the Saudis, who are not especially known for empty utopianism, expect this process to work. The comprehensive settlement which they project is hardly a compromise, but satisfies all outstanding Arab demands aside from the destruction of Israel itself. Such a settlement would still not satisfy the PLO—let alone the rejection front—but would obviously have to be imposed on Israel. In the Saudi scenario, the United States would in fact impose these terms on Israel, which, given its dependence on American support, would have to submit. In other words, for the Saudis (and Jordanians, moderate Palestinians, etc.), a comprehensive settlement is a euphemism for an American-forced total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories (and possibly includes the “repatriation” of Palestinians).

Aside from the Saudi connection, there is no reason to think that such a course of action is any more in American interests now than at any time since the 1967 war. But even if the idea seemed good in theory, it would not work in the real world. For the United States to impose on Israel a settlement so detrimental to what Israelis see as their most vital interests would require more than just leverage; it would require complete control of Israeli politics and society. Advocates of an imposed peace (like George Ball) misread the bargaining situation between patron and client. It is not a one-way street, and especially not on a matter the client considers basic to survival, but which for the patron is only one of a spectrum of concerns around the globe. The perceived importance of the issue, the degree of determination, and the willingness to pay costs in order to prevail will all be substantially greater for the client. And when the risk of submitting to the pressure seems greater than the risk of going without superpower support (the principal “lever”), the patron’s ability to dictate is very slight. But does anyone really expect an American President to push to that point?

Advocates of an imposed peace cite as a model Eisenhower’s imposition of withdrawal on Israel in 1957. But it is precisely this experience that fortifies Israeli resistance; the 1957 withdrawal did not contribute to Middle East stability, but solidified Nasserism in the region and prepared the way for a war fought under more adverse conditions ten years later. U.S.-Israel confrontations—in 1957, 1969-70, 1975, and to some extent in 1977—have never produced progress in Arab-Israel diplomacy. Israeli concessions have been forthcoming, on the other hand, when confidence in the peace process and in the United States was strengthened. Sadat’s initiative led to a total revision of Israeli attitudes on Sinai and the Straits of Tiran, after years of American pressure had added nothing. Sadat, though still entertaining an exaggerated notion of American leverage on Israel, has come to appreciate these complexities more fully and now pays closer attention to the dynamics of attitude change in Israel. Unfortunately, the other Arab states cling to the scenario of an American-imposed settlement that will “deliver” Israel with little or no need for concessions on their part.



Rather than feed these illusions, the United States would do better to combat them. There is a difference in kind between a peace of mutual accommodation, in whch American influence is used to strengthen the confidence of both sides, and a dictated “settlement” in which basically unacceptable terms are unilaterally imposed on one side. The United States is committed to the first kind of peace, but words and actions that seem to denigrate partial achievements help to keep alive a belief in the imposed-peace scenario. The expectation that the United States can and will force Israel to accept Arab demands, outside the framework of mutual compromise and adjustment, is a chimera; the Saudis need to understand this.

In any case, the Arab-Israel conflict is hardly the only or even the main issue in Saudi relations with the United States. As such Arab observers as Abeed Dawisha have pointed out, the Saudis are concerned first of all with security and stability in the face of a number of internal and external threats: rising radicalism in the area, Soviet penetration, the unsettling effects of rapid development, encirclement by hostile regimes, and so forth. The recent clear manifestations of internal instability underline the basic weakness of a feudal regime seeking to hoard a significant part of mankind’s mineral wealth in the heart of one of the world’s more volatile regions. As Dawisha notes, it is vital for Saudi Arabia to be perceived as an active participant in the “struggle against Zionism” in order to avoid involvement in quarrels that could expose its basic weakness. Cooperation with the United States is also an essential element in the Saudi reading of its own security interests; attitudes to the United States will be determined largely on this basis and not in response to the American position on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nor is the link to oil pricing and supply as direct as John Connally and George Ball proclaim. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee study confirms what should be obvious to any serious analyst of post-1973 oil marketing: OPEC prices, and decisions on production levels by particular countries, are determined by economic criteria and not by political motives. The same can be said of decisions on the disposition of surplus revenues; they are invested for maximum profit and not for political effect. The Western position on oil price and supply would not be improved by one iota if the Arab-Israel conflict were to be magically resolved tomorrow. The problem of politically-inspired selective embargos is somewhat different, but as the Iranian case shows, not even this is a function of the Arab-Israel conflict alone. So long as the West is vulnerable to oil cut-offs, any source of instability in the Middle East is a potential threat. The solution must involve more than the elimination of one source of instability; it must attack the fact of dependence itself.

In light of these considerations, there is even less justification for the United States being deflected from what is clearly the only workable peace strategy. American ambivalence not only reflects an oversensitivity to public declarations by Arab states that ought not to be taken at face value, but also tends to undercut the chances of real diplomatic progress that would in the end win Saudi and other moderate Arab support—assuming the “moderates” genuinely believe that stabilization of the Arab-Israel conflict will reduce radical and Soviet influence in the area. Hints of U.S. backing for a comprehensive imposed peace can only be pernicious to the negotiating process, since they encourage Arab opponents of negotiation and discourage moderation among both Arabs and Israelis.



A case in point is U.S. Palestinian policy; the constant flirtation with the PLO has worked against moderating trends among Palestinians.

The PLO, whatever its leaders may privately hint about future changes of heart, is at present totally opposed to the negotiating process and the framework to which the United States is presumably committed. In positing as its goal a Palestinian state in place of, and not alongside, Israel, the PLO platform is a minority position among Arabs and probably even among Palestinians, despite their widespread verbal support for the PLO. On the other hand, there is little doubt that the PLO faithfully and authentically reflects the views of many Palestinians among the 1948 refugees, who in fact comprise its historic base of support and who are not entranced with the idea of a state confined to the West Bank. This, of course, does not prevent innumerable outside observers, with as much persistence as illogic, from urging a PLO-led state on the West Bank as an ultimate solution to the conflict.

Take, for example, George Ball in one of his more recent fulminations (Worldview, December 1979):

[We must] direct our diplomatic efforts at trying, in a realistic way, to deal with these recalcitrant and complex issues that lie at the center of the Arab-Israeli problem. . . . That means, in the first instance, being prepared not only to talk directly with the PLO but to say to them that the United States will support an arrangement providing self-determination to the peoples of the occupied areas, provided they in return are prepared, as a part of the final arrangement, to recognize the legitimate rights of the people of Israel to territorial integrity within the pre-1967 borders, subject to such minor rectifications as may be negotiated, and are prepared to agree to necessary measures of restraint to reinforce Israeli security. . . . Only when we frankly offer support for self-determination can we hope to gain the support of other Arab states in the area that have themselves accepted Resolution 242; only then can we expect the peoples now living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to respond in a manner that will enable the more moderate leaders of the PLO to agree to participate in a serious diplomatic effort.

Obviously Ball believes that self-determination in the occupied territories is sufficient to engage the PLO—or at least its “more moderate leaders”—in a final resolution of the conflict. He assumes that an Israel “within the pre-1967 borders” will pose no residual problems in a comprehensive settlement based on the formula of withdrawal in exchange for peace and recognition. This ahistorical tendency to treat the conflict as rooted in the events of 1967 is confirmed in Ball’s comments on terrorism: “If one cannot condone terrorism, one can at least identify its roots, and historically terrorism has been a psychotic response to a military occupation.” As though there were no terrorism used against Israel before 1967!

The idea of a West Bank Palestinian state or autonomous entity as centerpiece of an Arab-Israel settlement has tremendous and apparently unshakable appeal to some minds. It seems to tie up all the loose ends: the future of the occupied territories, a negotiating partner for Israel, a role for the PLO. And there is indeed compelling logic behind the idea of dividing the area into self-governing Jewish and Arab states; after all, that was the basis of the 1947 UN partition plan. But the idea was rejected then by Palestinian Arabs on grounds that it was unjust and involved “grave practical difficulties . . . commerce would be strangled, communications dislocated, and the public finances upset.”

Now, apparently, there are at least some Arabs willing to contemplate a Palestinian Arab state in part of Palestine as the key to resolving the conflict. And George Ball is not the only observer to seize on this idea as a means of escaping basic contradictions in the positions of the two sides. The Carter administration, from its original espousal of a “Palestinian homeland” in 1977 to its insistent pressures in the current autonomy talks, obviously believes that the Palestinian problem can be solved—to the satisfaction of enough parties to make it stick—with a program centering on the West Bank and Gaza.

There is, however, one small defect in this vision: the solution is irrelevant to the problem it is designed to solve.

The PLO did not originate in the 1967 war. It was founded by and still essentially represents the interests of the 1948 refugees from what is now Israel. Refugees from Acre, Jaffa, or Haifa are not interested in “returning” to Nablus or Hebron; had they wanted to resettle on the West Bank, they could have done so at any time between 1948 and 1967. But refugees in the West Bank area remain registered as refugees. The persistence of outside observers in trying to link the PLO and the West Bank illustrates the marvelous imperviousness of the human mind to facts and evidence that contradict comfortable notions (or, as a psychologist might put it, the avoidance of cognitive dissonance). The PLO cannot be blamed for this confusion, for its own statements and internal debates have been admirably clear on the topic. Over the disclaimers of their well-wishers in the West, PLO leaders have consistently confirmed the obvious implication of their basic goals: they do not regard a West Bank state, let alone West Bank autonomy (no matter how complete), as satisfaction of their grievances.



In 1974, at the 12th session of the Palestine National Council, the PLO position on the liberation of the West Bank was debated at length and solemnly pronounced. It was decided that the PLO would agree to establish an “independent and fighting authority” on the West Bank if and when Israeli withdrawal there could be effectuated. Some factions opposed this on the grounds that even a “temporary” West Bank stale would divert energy and attention from the basic struggle to liberate the rest of Palestine. The majority position, however, accepted the idea of a West Bank state as an interim step in the achievement of the final goal, it being understood that such acceptance did not imply any change of attitude toward other occupied areas (i.e., what the rest of the world recognizes as Israel within its pre-1967 lines):

The PLO will struggle against any plan for the establishment of a Palestinian entity the price of which is recognition, conciliation, secure borders, renunciation of the national right, and our people’s deprivation of their right to return and their right to determine their fate on their national soil.

In March 1977, the 13th National Council substituted the word “state” for the word “authority,” but otherwise made no substantive changes. As Farouk al Kadoumi, the PLO “Foreign Minister,” carefully explained:

We accept at this stage that we have this state on only part of our territory. But this doesn’t mean that we are giving up the rest of our rights. . . . There are two [initial] phases to our return. The first phase to the 1967 lines, and the second to the 1948 lines . . . the third stage is the democratic state of Palestine.

In August 1977, there was a serious American effort to get the PLO to accept UN Resolution 242, which at least implies recognition of Israel, in order to draw Arafat into the negotiating process and meet the requirements for initiation of U.S.-PLO diplomatic contact. President Carter, basing himself on apparently sincere Saudi and Egyptian assurances, conjectured optimistically that “Palestinian leaders have indicated indirectly that they might adopt Resolution 242,” and offered publicly to begin U.S.-PLO talks if they would do so. But within hours a PLO spokesman had disclaimed any intention of accepting 242 unless it were fundamentally rewritten, thus leaving Carter in a somewhat exposed position and embarrassing the Saudis and Egyptians.

Just recently, as noted earlier, the administration floated the idea of another Security Council Resolution “complementing” 242, despite a lack of indication that it would have any greater success in attracting the PLO to a peace negotiation based on coexistence with Israel; this effort was abandoned after protests from both Israel and Egypt that it undercut the autonomy talks by discouraging the cooperation of Palestinians who would accept that basic framework of the Camp David accords.

The PLO position has been reiterated so often, and so recently, that refuting the tiresome wishful thinking of the George Balls becomes in itself tiresome. For example, the recent statement by the PLO representative in Saudi Arabia (a “moderate” in PLO politics): “Every entity set up in a part of Palestine will be a starting point for the liberation of the rest of the territories of Palestine” (Al Riyadh, November 13, 1979). From time to time a visiting journalist or politician, convinced that he alone has been privy to the innermost thoughts in PLO circles, emerges from a tête-à-tête with Arafat and declares that the PLO is ready to recognize Israel. Usually PLO leaders repudiate such self-appointed spokesmen at once; Arafat could not long maintain his position or the organization were he to try to redefine its raison d’être by personal fiat. And why should greater trust be put in private assurances that PLO leaders do not dare make public, than on solemn statements of policy that have been painstakingly debated and negotiated within the organization over the years? In any event, until changes in the PLO position are made public, they can hardly serve as a basis for negotiations.1



Even if PLO leaders were to accept the idea, a West Bank state would not solve the problems of the 1948 refugees. The West Bank is about a quarter the size of Massachusetts, and much of it is barren. Generally it has been an exporter rather than an importer of people; the “Palestinizing” of Jordan before 1967, with a steady population flow to the East Bank, was in large part an expression of the population pressure and lack of economic opportunity on the West Bank. The West Bank population now is about 700,000, while there are more than 1.5 million registered refugees outside the West Bank. In no conceivable way could more than a fraction of them be accommodated on the West Bank itself.

This does not exhaust the practical problems of a PLO-led state in such close proximity to Israel. Even if the will to suppress terrorism were present, the divisions and internal dynamics of the PLO would make control of provocations next to impossible. Conventional security issues have been stressed at length by military analysts. Modern military technology, far from reducing the significance of the West Bank for Israel, increases that significance; for example, modern surface-to-air missiles from West Bank territory could effectively block all Israeli airfields. Critics point out that Israel survived a hostile government on the West Bank before 1967, but there is no comparison between the military capabilities of pre-1967 Jordan and the potential of a Soviet-equipped and Soviet-trained military establishment in the 1980’s—stationed in an area commanding the strip of territory with three-quarters of Israel’s population. Nor, given the distances, would demilitarization solve the problem; a hostile army, if allowed free movement on the West Bank, could cross the Jordan and reach the Mediterranean before Israel could mobilize. Thus any Israeli government must be extremely sensitive to the nature of any regime or leadership in an autonomous or independent West Bank, and certainly would never, so long as it was in touch with reality, relinquish control to any group associated with the PLO’s current aims and tactics.

There is, of course, the notion that being given a state to run would domesticate and moderate the PLO leadership. The evidence for this pious assertion is elusive. The weight of recent evidence—Iran, Vietnam, Libya, South Yemen, Cuba, Uganda—would indicate that radical leaders are seldom absorbed by domestic problems but in fact prefer to rally their countries against foreign “enemies” as such problems mount.

And why should West Bank residents have PLO rule, dominated by refugees not from the West Bank, imposed upon them? In what way is this any more just than the rule of Nationalist Chinese refugees over native Taiwanese? Of course, at the present time West Bank leaders proclaim their support of the PLO, as a means of showing their opposition to Israel and acting in conformity with the prevailing Arab mood. But one can be skeptical about the extent to which they would actually welcome rule by Yasir Arafat; their interests, their outlook, and their own personal and communal aspirations all point the other way. As a non-displaced, non-refugee population, they have repeatedly indicated their acceptance of permanent coexistence with Israel. Even the emergence of a new, assertive, presumably pro-PLO leadership in the mayoral elections of 1976 may in the end undermine the PLO’s position, since it is much more difficult for the PLO to discredit such leadership, while the mayors are emerging as an authentically indigenous power center, to the unhappiness of the PLO.

Most Palestinians are not refugees, and most already reside in the Palestinian “homeland” in its broader definition (including the East Bank). The non-refugee population of the West Bank takes in some 15-20 per cent of all Palestinians, and is one of four major Palestinian constituencies. The others are West Bank residents who have moved (voluntarily) to the East Bank, the original East Bank population, and the 1948 refugees (living mainly in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Arab oil-producing states). Applying the rule of self-determination, West Bank residents should have a great deal to say about the future of the West Bank, while the PLO has no clear mandate to participate in such discussions. The autonomy talks in the Camp David framework are based on this assumption, and rightfully assign the key negotiating role to an elected local authority. Furthermore, once the PLO is excluded, the definition of the remaining issues becomes clearer and the chances for success more substantial.



Once we assume mutual acceptance and the end of Israeli control of Arab-inhabited areas, discussion of the future of the West bank becomes a matter of defining autonomy or independence both with regard to Israel and with regard to Jordan. With regard to Israel, it is obvious that even the Likud does not want to perpetuate direct control of a large Arab population. To be sure, the present Israeli government has proposed a severely restricted operational definition of autonomy, and there remains the emotional issue of Jewish settlement, but one can expect further concessions toward meaningful autonomy as bargaining continues (especially if Labor, as expected, wins the next Israeli election). In addition, the Israeli position on autonomy is very sensitive to the evolution of West Bank leadership; a genuinely autonomous leadership, free of PLO domination, would win more Israeli concessions on autonomy.

The growth of Israeli willingness to contemplate genuine local autonomy is reflected in the recent statements of Moshe Dayan, who has urged an end to Israeli military government and the unilateral extension of home rule, even in advance of and without reference to the Egypt-Israel autonomy talks. Dayan, long considered almost an annexationist on West Bank issues, now argues that the Israeli presence there should be limited to security-related matters: preventing the entrance of Arafat, the establishment of terrorist bases, etc. As for the reluctance of local officials to cooperate, he points out that elected officials already exist and that it is unlikely they would refuse to wield additional powers that were unilaterally and unconditionally extended to them.

As for autonomy vis-à-vis Jordan, when stripped of the PLO connection this is simply the issue of the future linkage between West and East Banks. In this more limited context, and despite the eclipse of Jordan’s role in recent years, there is still a strong case for close linkage. In the first place, closer ties to Jordan make it possible for Israel to contemplate a reduction of its own role; in other words, less autonomy from Jordan makes possible more autonomy from Israel. But, more substantively, the West and East Banks are driven together by objective facts. By any test of geography, history, demography, linguistics, culture, or sociology, East and West Banks belong together. Both were a part of the original British mandate of Palestine. Even by the narrow definition of “Palestine” as only that territory west of the Jordan River, half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin. In its basic documents the PLO refers to Jordanians and Palestinians as “one people,” and has called for a government in Amman “that will cohere with the Palestine entity.” These ties are reinforced by economic complementarity and demographic realities (with the movement across the Jordan, there is hardly a family that is not split between the two banks). Geographically, the West Bank’s only Arab border is with Jordan.

Given the PLO tide of the last few years, Jordanian officials have been very coy about reunification. But they do, nevertheless, make every effort to maintain their influence on the West Bank. Salaries are still paid to West Bank officials, municipal budgets are still underwritten, and maps including the West Bank are still issued. Despite appearances, the likelihood of at least some linkage between the West Bank and Jordan remains quite high, and in this respect also the Camp David framework is realistic in specifying a Jordanian role in negotiations.

Finally, it should be noted that although the PLO enjoys near universal verbal support in the Arab world, PLO leaders complain regularly and bitterly in the Arab press over the subordination of the Palestinian cause to the interests of Arab states (Libya being the latest case). No Arab state regards support of the PLO as a primary interest; most seek to manipulate the Palestinian issue to their own benefit in intra-Arab rivalries. As Carter was indiscreet enough to note publicly, in his experience no Arab leader had ever privately urged the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. One of the last things that Jordan or Saudi Arabia wants is to strengthen the power and influence of Yasir Arafat. Even the Syrians are happy to see the PLO militarily weak, internally divided, and totally dependent on Arab governments. The idea that the PLO alone could disrupt any Middle East settlement overlooks this dependence; Arab states could control the PLO any time by withdrawing their support.



The presence of all these differences not only within the Arab world at large but in the narrower world of the Palestinians themselves is something U.S. policy should be making use of in order to promote a practical settlement. Instead, the U.S. has persistently ignored these differences in favor of signaling its desire to deal with a PLO still committed to total ends. Thus it is no wonder that West Bank moderates have not stepped forward, and that U.S. policy has succeeded only in defeating itself.

It is conceivable that moderate Palestinian representation can come from within as well as from outside the PLO, but in either case the strategy for encouraging moderation must include a clear and unambiguous rejection of the PLO as now constituted. Anything else creates the impression among PLO leaders that they can gain acceptance without altering their goals. As Elie Kedourie has noted, American policy toward the PLO risks repeating the mistake committed in the 1930’s by the British, who made Palestinian diplomacy dependent on the most extreme elements of the Arab community and thus effectively guaranteed the failure of their efforts—and the creation of today’s problems.

With a U.S. policy of unambiguous support for the Camp David framework, the chances for substantial diplomatic progress on Arab-Israel issues would be much better than the experts would have us believe. The current hostility to Sadat should not obscure the fact that basic trends have been positive; consider the public positions of Arab countries now against their positions one or two decades ago. Even the Syrians followed Sadat’s lead up to a point after the 1973 war, and remain formally committed to a settlement, based on UN Security Council Resolution 242, that implies acceptance of Israel. In fact only the PLO, together with Libya, Iraq, and South Yemen, cling to the rejectionist position that was universal in the Arab world only twelve years ago, at the time of the Khartoum conference after the 1967 war.

Against this background, it is not inconceivable that the Camp David framework could prove attractive. Much of the Arab criticism of Sadat involves timing and tactics; Sadat has moved too fast for his Arab partners and has in their minds given away too much in return for vague formulas. But if future negotiations achieve concrete results, the major criticism will have been met. Many moderate Palestinians originally reacted favorably to Sadat’s initiative. In December 1977, 9,000 Nablus residents signed a petition in support of his moves (since then, pressure to conform, reinforced by events like the murder of the Imam of Gaza, has discouraged such public expressions). Clearly the actions of the radicals indicate a real fear that the Camp David framework might “seduce” the moderates; the unusual frequency of visits to Hussein by formerly hostile Arab leaders shows in a perverse way their recognition of Camp David’s potential appeal and the need to counter it.

Nor should one despair of the autonomy talks. Egypt and Israel both have strong interests in keeping the diplomatic process moving, and as the deadline approaches there will be greater pressure to make concessions. Israel’s initial proposals, so widely condemned, should be seen as an initial bargaining position, and we need to recall that the present government has more than once abandoned demands that had been described as basic and non-negotiable. But even if the deadline is missed (as it was with the Egypt-Israel treaty), negotiations will continue, and the Egypt-Israel treaty can in the meantime stand on its own. Eventually pressures for results, combined possibly with the return of a Labor government and growing disillusionment with the costs of military occupation in Israel, will produce an agreed-upon autonomy plan. The completion of such a plan would put an end to the immediate Egyptian role; if West Bank residents still declined to cooperate, the plan could simply be put on the shelf until attitudes changed. But it would become increasingly difficult for West Bank leaders to refuse to run their own affairs—especially as many aspects of autonomy could even be unilaterally put into effect by Israel.

But the United States must in the meantime put its full weight behind the delicate process of peace-building that is now unfolding. It must convincingly reject once and for all the Arab conception of an imposed peace, and stop sending signals that cast doubt on its commitment to the Camp David framework. It must make certain that military options remain unappealing, and that American actions strengthen the moderates rather than the militants in each country. The appeal of cooperation can be reinforced by stress on other issues of importance to countries in the area, getting away from the illusion that all relations with Arab countries are a function of U.S. ties with Israel. Aid to Egypt and actions to counter radical threats in the area are two possible courses.

When the United States has adhered to the realistic approach embodied in the Camp David documents, it has made progress. When it has tried to satisfy the opponents of the Camp David approach, it has succeeded only in jeopardizing the entire process. To recognize this simple truth is the beginning of wisdom for the United States in dealing with the Arab-Israel conflict.


1 The January 1980 issue of the pro-Arab journal The Middle East surveyed Palestinian leaders on the question of whether the Palestinian National Charter, which calls for armed struggle until the liberation of all of Palestine, should be changed. Eleven PLO officials and Palestinian intellectuals associated with the PLO (but no West Bank or Jordan residents) were interviewed, covering the full spectrum of opinion among expatriate Palestinians, the PLO's basic constituency. All eleven opposed any changes in the Charter.

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