Commentary Magazine

Is Peace Still Possible in the Middle East?: The Role of the United States

The history of America’s Middle East policy since 1973 is marked by an apparent paradox. When measured by the scope of its aims and the degree of its involvement, this policy plainly seems more ambitious than ever. When judged by our present role of mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict, it also appears more successful than ever. Yet there has been no proportionate increase in the power at the disposal of American policy. Instead, a policy that has grown in ambition has been attended by a relative decline of American power. How far this decline has progressed over the past five years is a matter of controversy and uncertainty. What is certain is that the relative power of the United States in the region has diminished since the October war, and this despite our displacement of Soviet influence in the principal Arab state. For that displacement cannot be seen in isolation from other developments. It did not result in the reduction of Russian influence in a number of other Arab countries. Nor did it result in the reduction of Soviet military power in the region. According to the estimates of most expert observers in these matters, Moscow’s military power there—as elsewhere—has increased relative to our own. Where these observers differ is over the degree and significance of the increase.

The loss of American power in the Middle East must also, and perhaps even primarily, be measured in relation to the principal Arab oil producers. Within the span of a few years, changes in power relationships have occurred that are almost without precedent. States which had once been the objects of American, and of European, power have come to enjoy a leverage with the great industrial consumers of Middle East petroleum that would have been dismissed as incredible only a decade ago. In the years which have followed this astonishing assertion of power—astonishing because it was made virtually without serious challenge—a considerable effort has been devoted to minimizing the loss suffered by the West, and in particular by America. What has happened, it is argued, is that a once dependent relationship has now become a relationship of interdependence. To this the point is generally added that the Arab oil producers—and above all Saudi Arabia—can be expected to act with moderation and restraint because it is in their interests to do so. The argument provides cold comfort. In this context, interdependence is no more than a euphemism for the loss of power formerly enjoyed, a loss attended by the hope—it can be no more—that those who now control access to an indispensable source of the world’s energy will conform to Western views of prudence and self-interest.

It is against this general background that America’s Middle East policy since 1973 must be seen. And against this background the conclusion forces itself that an apparently more ambitious policy is not rooted in the assurance that comes from a stable, let alone an ascending, position of power but in the anxiety that results from an awareness of growing vulnerability. This awareness forms the principal motivation that has prompted a deepened American involvement in the Middle East, and the same awareness accounts for the changing character of that involvement. A growing vulnerability must find its compensation in a policy designed above all to avoid the one contingency that might suddenly reveal the full dimensions of American decline. Thus, it is said that another war in the Middle East would hold out greater potential for superpower confrontation than did the 1973 war, which is itself seen as a sobering lesson in the dangers of permitting the Arab-Israeli conflict to erupt in armed hostilities. Such a confrontation might arise independently of another Arab oil embargo, or as a result of an embargo. An embargo would confront the United States with an agonizing choice of passivity or intervention. The risks of remaining passive could prove very considerable. Yet the risks of intervention could also prove very considerable, not least of all because of the prospect that intervention would be actively opposed by the Soviet Union.

Given these considerations and apprehensions, the determination of American governments to establish this nation as the mediator of the Arab-Israeli conflict becomes entirely understandable. The main lesson of the October war, and of developments related to the war, is that the United States must henceforth extend its full efforts to insuring the stability of the region. A further lesson, however, has been that stability cannot be insured by a policy that emphasizes the special relationship with Israel, that supports Israeli military predominance, and that refrains from bringing pressure to bear on Israel to give up any of the occupied territories in the absence of Arab willingness directly to seek peace with the victor of the 1967 war. This had been, in substance, American policy in the aftermath of the 1967 war and, the abortive Rogers plan apart, it more or less remained American policy until 1973.

The October war marked the beginning of a new policy whose general implications are clear only in retrospect. The prime desideratum of this policy is stability. But the promise of stability is incompatible with the maintenance of the post-1967 status quo. Israel can maintain this status quo only by the continued willingness to risk war on its behalf. In the circumstances of the past five years, however, war has been seen to threaten American interests as never before. Accordingly, the avoidance of a further round of hostilities cannot be left to the unaided and unguided will of the parties. Its avoidance must be sought through such alteration of the status quo as will satisfy the demands of those who in the absence of change may once again resort to war, who in desperation may once again turn to the Russians, and who in the last resort may once again make use of the oil weapon. To avoid these prospects, America must now preside over a process that will effect the necessary change in the status quo. It can do so by virtue of the special relationship it has with Israel.

In the past, this relationship had regularly placed the Arab confrontation states at odds with Washington. There was no intrinsic reason, though, why the relationship could not be transformed so as to constitute in Arab eyes an American asset rather than a liability. All would depend upon how it was now to be exploited by Washington. Properly exploited, it could win Arab support and place Washington in a position of great advantage over the Russians. What the Arabs wanted, Moscow could help them get only through war. But Washington could help them get what they wanted—or at least, what they now increasingly said they wanted—through far less dangerous methods. The myth of the 1973 Arab “victory”—a myth of crucial significance—might thus be preserved. With the sense of inferiority and humiliation now in part erased by a war that could be seen as a victory and by control over a resource that brought sudden wealth and deference, the Arab confrontation states and their principal supporters might at long last move in a direction of greater moderation. If so, the stage would be set for Washington to play the ambitious role it now cast for itself and which, indeed, it felt compelled to play because of its declining power and rising vulnerability.




These considerations point to a logic in America’s Middle Eastern policy over the past five years that transcends the particular custodians of policy as well as their distinctive diplomatic methods and tactics of implementation. To say this is not to dismiss methods and tactics as being without significance, but only to insist that the starting point of inquiry and understanding must be what have been commonly seen since 1973 as the great imperatives of policy. These imperatives held quite as much for Henry Kissinger as they now hold for his successors. Indeed, it was Kissinger who first articulated them and who gave essential form to the new diplomatic design that emerged in the wake of the October war. It was Kissinger who sought to demonstrate the very great dangers of any further resort to arms not only for the parties to the Middle East conflict but for the world. Equally, it was Kissinger who remained passive before the challenge mounted by the oil producers and who, through his failure to respond, relinquished American interests and power to an extent we cannot accurately gauge even today. The twin threats posed by superpower confrontation and the oil weapon have since formed the major constraints on American policy. They are the imperatives to which the new policy has responded.

Even so, the response has not been uniform. Although Kissinger’s apologists have made too much of the differences presumably separating his policy from that of his successors, there are differences and they are significant. In part, they reflect a contrasting outlook. Kissinger entertained a more profound view of the conflict than those who have followed him. He appreciated its deep-rooted character and the great obstacles in the way of its resolution. By contrast, his successors have often shown an optimism over the prospects of resolving the conflict that betrays little awareness of its almost intractable sources. Then, too, Kissinger was innately cautious, again in marked contrast to at least his self-chosen epigone, Brzezinski. It was this combination of a skeptical outlook and innate caution that led the former Secretary of State to a diplomatic design which held out the prospect of only apparently modest results.

The diplomacy of step-by-step put forth no grand design for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. It deliberately avoided even the suggestion of what the eventual shape of an overall settlement might be. Instead, step-by-step diplomacy sought to maintain a minimum stability, a stability to be achieved through a series of limited agreements that left ambiguous the shape of the ultimate outcome. Its premise was that where the parties to a conflict are unable to agree upon the outlines of a general settlement, limited agreements are possible only by leaving the greater issues in abeyance. What adversaries will not accept when presented as a whole, they may accept when unfolded over a period of time in increments—or steps. Limited agreements might serve progressively to narrow the initially profound differences separating adversaries while slowly establishing an increasing measure of trust and confidence.

This was the well-known rationale of step-by-step diplomacy. From the Israeli viewpoint, Kissinger’s policy was objectionable not because it failed to set forth the general outlines of a settlement, nor because it demanded too much from Israel even when measured against the American promise of greatly increased economic and military aid. Instead, the principal objection centered on the American willingness to mediate under Arab pressure and to do so without insisting upon Arab concessions in return for Israeli concessions. The pattern established by Kissinger relieved the Arabs of negotiating directly with the Israelis for the return of territory. At the same time, it served to transmit Arab pressure through the American mediator to Israel. The effectiveness and credibility of step-by-step diplomacy depended on the Arabs’ retaining confidence in the ability of the American government to show “progress,” that is, to demonstrate that it could bring sufficient pressure to bear on the Israelis to make concessions. Thus, progress and minimum stability depended upon the American ability and willingness to hold out to Israel a compelling mixture of sanctions and rewards. Kissinger resorted to both, though he understandably preferred the latter. In either case, the effectiveness of step-by-step diplomacy was necessarily a function of Israel’s degree of dependence on the United States, a dependence the 1973 war had increased and that American policy served to increase further.

Did Kissinger’s diplomacy contain the seeds of the diplomacy that succeeded him? Is it fair to say that those who followed Kissinger have simply carried his policy to its logical conclusion? The questions are difficult to answer with any assurance. Quite possibly, Kissinger would have resisted doing what his successors have done. After all, policies are often perverted precisely by being carried to their logical conclusion. The line separating compromise from appeasement, or firmness from intransigence, depends on not pushing too far. In the case at hand, there is the added consideration that the architect of the policy apparently did not intend pushing beyond a certain point. This explains why he was content to leave the Geneva option stillborn, and why he paid no more than lip service to the notion of a comprehensive settlement. It also explains his reluctance even to acknowledge, let alone seriously to address his attention to, the Palestinian problem.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that had Kissinger remained in office he would have moved well beyond his initial design. For this design relieved only immediate pressures, and then only at considerable cost. It did not and probably could not adequately respond to the dangers that Kissinger was as intent on avoiding as are those who have followed him. Once the great imperatives of American policy had been defined as they were defined in 1973, there was very little alternative to moving beyond the seemingly modest objectives of step-by-step diplomacy. Kissinger admitted as much when he acknowledged that step-by-step had probably run its course after the conclusion of the September 1975 Sinai agreement. Yet if this were true, what assurance was there that minimum stability would be maintained? In what manner could the United States satisfactorily respond to rising Arab demands for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and for the creation of a Palestinian state? In the final year of his period in office, Kissinger had no ready answers to these questions. But his successors did.




The Carter administration came to power determined to remedy the shortcomings in America’s Middle East policy. What Kissinger had seen as the virtues of his policy, his successors saw as serious defects. The new presidential assistant for national security, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had on more than one occasion in earlier years criticized the Kissinger diplomacy for its ambiguity. The policy of step-by-step, Brzezinski had urged, placed Israel in an unfortunate dilemma. By refusing to agree to a particular step without knowing where it might ultimately lead, Israel appeared intransigent. Yet by agreeing to a particular step without knowing where it might lead, Israel ran considerable risk. On the Arab side, Brzezinski argued, the step-by-step approach sowed the distrust that had been evident between Egypt and Syria in the aftermath of the 1975 Sinai agreement. Committed to partial settlements, to separate deals, the Kissinger policy worked to divide the Arab states through encouraging agreements that would be seen by at least some Arabs as a betrayal of their common cause. This consequence alone was seen as a fatal defect, since it was taken as axiomatic then, as it still is today, that just as the major Arab regimes could only make war together they also could only make peace together. A strategy that either sought to divide these regimes or had the effect of doing so was held to be inimical to American interests.

The more general criticism of step-by-step, whether by Brzezinski or by others, was that it amounted to little more than sophisticated Micawberism. Beneath its rather pretentious verbal trappings, Kissinger’s diplomacy merely served to buy time in the hope that something might turn up. But little, if anything, was considered likely to turn up. Instead, time was being bought for reasons and in ways that would only exacerbate tensions already high.

Kissinger’s soon-to-be successors did not, however, differ from his general conception of the “problem” in achieving a Middle East settlement. The dilemma of such a settlement, Kissinger had often declared, “is to balance physical security against legitimacy.” How was the balance to be struck in practice? The former Secretary of State was careful not to commit himself. Perhaps he had never resolved the dilemma in his own mind. Others had. Brzezinski, never one to be daunted by dilemmas, immediately struck the balance that had eluded Kissinger. “How does a nation become ‘legitimate’ to its neighbors?” he asked. His reply, of more than historical interest, was this:

Only with an arrangement that gives Israel security, and also gives it to its neighbors, with borders that are mutually acceptable and hence have not been imposed by one side or the other, can the reality of coexistence be translated by history into “legitimate acceptance.” In other words, the sequence cannot be . . . from recognition of legitimacy to a territorial settlement, resolving along the way the future of the Palestinians, but the other way around. By creating a situation in which both sides become secure, and thereby find it more possible to coexist with each other, the basis for “legitimacy” will be laid.1

This brief statement reveals, and with great clarity, an outlook on the Arab-Israeli conflict that goes far in explaining the subsequent policy of the Carter administration. What Brzezinski was saying is that Israel’s illegitimacy in Arab eyes derives not from its “being” but from its “doing,” that is, from Israel’s continued occupation of Arab territories and from its treatment of the Palestinians. Let Israel return the occupied territories and agree to self-determination for the Palestinians and it will create the basis for its legitimacy. Brzezinski was of course aware of the fact that the issue of Israel’s legitimacy long predated the 1967 war. If he nevertheless argued that legitimacy would result through undoing the consequences of that war (plus permitting the creation of a Palestinian state), it could only be because he assumed by 1975 that the Arabs had already changed, that in the main they had already become moderate in their view of the conflict, and that what stood in the way of a concrete expression of this moderation was Israel’s refusal to give back what it had taken in 1967.



In contrast to step-by-step diplomacy, the critics of Kissinger argued that the only viable approach to the Middle East conflict was one that sought a comprehensive settlement. The concessions such a settlement would require of Israel were, from the outset, quite clear. By contrast, the concessions that would be required of the Arab states were considerably less than clear. Although Kissinger had been reproached for the risks he had pressured the Israelis to take without knowing where they might lead, the risks had in fact been of limited character. Given their incremental nature, they could be compensated for, if the need arose, and even reversed. This was a saving virtue of Kissinger’s policy. The policy advocated by those of his critics who favored a comprehensive settlement did not consist of limited steps but of one giant step that, once taken, could be reversed only with great difficulty, if at all.

The irreversibility of a comprehensive settlement was and remains a virtue in the eyes of its proponents. Yet undeniably it also raised a large difficulty. Unless Israel could be assured that its legitimacy and security were placed beyond serious question by a comprehensive settlement, the charge that had been made against Kissinger could also be made, and with far greater justice, against those criticizing him in the name of such a settlement. This was all the more true if a comprehensive settlement were not in fact comprehensive, as the early proposals were not, in that a resolution of the issue of legitimacy, with a concomitant normalization of relations, was expected only to follow from a settlement.

Finally, even if the issue of legitimacy were to be resolved, there would remain the issue of security. Legitimacy is not the perennial concern of states; rather it is security. A legitimate Israel could not be equated with a secure Israel. Legitimacy was undoubtedly a significant part of Israel’s security problem, but it was not and could not be the whole of it. History affords any number of examples of states that have been regarded as legitimate by their neighbors, yet were insecure. In many cases, they were insecure even though they held no territories taken in war or to which their neighbors could otherwise lay rightful claim. And they were insecure not because they perceived themselves to be insecure but because, in some instances, they faced neighbors who for any number of reasons were potentially hostile and against whom they had little if any strategic depth for defense.

These remarks, which may seem banal, are made only because in the context of the never-ending dialogue on the Arab-Israeli conflict the distinction they point to is regularly either overlooked, or confused, or—not infrequently—simply dismissed. Kissinger certainly appreciated the distinction, though, by his ponderous formulations of the Middle East problem, he often confused others. Kissinger’s principal critics and eventual successors have also appreciated the distinction. Although they have consistently maintained that the Israeli concern for security verges on the obsessive, they have denied neither that the concern is real nor that in some measure at least it is just. From the outset, their response to this concern has been the proposal of a guarantee—ultimately an American guarantee. Whether implicit or explicit, the guarantee has been, throughout, the means that is expected to remove the ultimate obstacle to a comprehensive settlement. It is, without exaggeration, the key to virtually all of the proposals for a comprehensive settlement. Without the guarantee, such proposals have always been vulnerable to the criticism that they would, if acted upon, place Israel in a position where—even though legitimacy had been obtained—it might well be unable to defend itself.

The need for a guarantee to attend a comprehensive settlement was acknowledged in the December 1975 report of the Brookings study group bearing the title, Toward Peace in the Middle East. The Brookings study group included members (Brzezinski, William Quandt, Robert Bowie) destined to occupy critical positions in the Carter administration. The report was represented as a compromise position of a group whose members otherwise entertained quite diverse views toward the Arab-Israeli conflict (discreetly termed a “dispute”). It was “essential,” the report declared, that a comprehensive settlement “be promptly found.” The failure to find such a settlement threatened the renewal of hostilities, with all the incalculable consequences war might now bring. But while insistent on the great dangers held out by war, the report is optimistic on the prospects of peace. The parties are seen as disposed to negotiate a permanent settlement. What they lack is a viable plan, a satisfactory framework for negotiations, and the proper encouragement.

The Brookings proposals are indeed comprehensive. They call not only for the establishment of mutually acceptable boundaries (defined essentially as the pre-1967 lines), the acceptance of a Palestinian right of self-determination (together with resettlement of Palestinian refugees in a newly-formed Palestinian entity), and something approaching the internationalization of Jerusalem, but also for a peace that comprises the normalization of relations (though full normalization is made a long-term objective). The settlement is to be implemented in stages that are to be spelled out explicitly. These stages, the report reads, “will require considerable time, probably several years, for full implementation.” Who will ultimately determine whether the agreement is being carried out in good faith is left unclear. Face-to-face negotiations among the parties is called for, though within a more general framework that should include the United States and the Soviet Union. The parties “will need help,” the report emphasizes, and this can best come from the great powers who should also be prepared to guarantee the settlement reached.

What is significant in the Brookings report is not so much the specific content of the settlement it prescribes as its assumptions and general tone, which bear a striking resemblance to the assumptions and tone of the present administration. The idea that there is no viable alternative to a comprehensive settlement, that the parties, particularly the Arabs, are ready for such a settlement, that without it a war disastrous to American interests is inevitable and imminent, and that a comprehensive settlement can be negotiated and implemented in no more than several years—this is evidently the idea held by the Carter administration. So, too, the insistent tone that the great powers, particularly the United States, can and, if necessary, will do for the parties—particularly Israel—what unaided they may be unable to do for themselves is the authentic tone of the Carter administration.



Much has been made of the mystery that is Jimmy Carter. What is he really committed to? Did he mean what he said in his campaign speeches about his commitment to Israel? If he did, how does one reconcile his statements before becoming President with his actions as President? Nor is the difficulty merely one of reconciling campaign speeches with presidential actions. As late as May of this year, on the occasion of Israel’s thirtieth anniversary, Carter reaffirmed in emotional terms and “without reservation” the nation’s ties with Israel. The United States, the President declared, “will never waver from our deep friendship and partnership with Israel; our total absolute commitment to Israel’s security.” Yet at the moment Carter was making this vow to Israel’s Prime Minister, his administration was pressing hard for congressional approval of a measure—the sale of planes to Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—that appeared to strike at the core of the special relationship which had once largely defined American policy toward Israel.

Are we to conclude that the President has been insincere, that he would not have acted as he has over the past year and a half if he meant what he has often said? Not necessarily. It may be that he has been quite sincere and that his very sincerity affords a guide to his actions. Carter may well believe that all of his actions have been in the best interests of Israel, even if the Israelis and their supporters often have not had the detachment to appreciate this. It is, indeed, the President’s sincerity that may provide a clue to the apparent equanimity with which he views his actions. His conviction that he is committed to act only in Israel’s best interests enables him to dismiss the charges that he may have acted otherwise. Carter’s sincerity permits very little self-doubt. Nor is his assurance disturbed by the recognition that his first duty, after all, is to pursue this nation’s interests in the Middle East, not Israel’s. He appears persuaded that the interests of the two countries, if properly seen, are congruent, and that what is good for the United States is also good for Israel. In this, he is at one with many of Israel’s ardent supporters, who differ only in that they would reverse the terms of the equation.

On occasion, it is true, the President’s more sophisticated advisers have been known to acknowledge a disparity of interests between the two countries, but they have rarely done so openly. And even when they have expressed themselves off the record, they have added that the disparity would be reduced to marginal significance if only Israel were to take a more detached and clearer view of its real interests. To pressure Israel into doing so they have seen as unavoidable. The outlook that has characterized the Carter administration from the outset is perhaps best expressed in the title of a well-known essay by George Ball, “How to Save Israel in Spite of Herself.”2 An outsider, Ball voices the same aggressively well-meaning concern over Israel’s security and well-being as do a number of the President’s advisers. Writing in the early months of the Carter administration, he also expressed most of the central assumptions of this administration’s policy while anticipating much of the strategy it would follow.

It is imperative, Ball wrote, that the stalemate in the Middle East be broken. If it is not, the likelihood is that the present moderate leadership in the Arab front-line states—and Saudi Arabia—will be replaced by radical leadership. Should this once happen, the stage will be set for war, with all the dangers another war must hold out for superpower confrontation and the Arab use of the oil weapon. Even without war, the absence of substantial progress toward resolving the conflict may lead the Arabs to the use of this weapon. But the kind of progress needed can no longer be achieved through partial solutions. Nothing less than a comprehensive settlement can ward off the otherwise imminent prospects of instability and war.

The difficulty, Ball argued, is that neither side is willing or able to break the stalemate with a compromise solution the other side can accept. This being the case, the United States has little alternative but to pursue an “assertive” diplomacy which will do for the parties what they are unable to do for themselves. It is not a matter of imposing a settlement, but merely of insisting that both sides carry out the “straightforward trade-off” envisaged by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. The trade-off, as Ball saw it, was on most points similar to the Brookings proposals. He dissented from the earlier proposals only in doubting the desirability of implementing a comprehensive settlement by stages. Moreover, in his proposal, the Arabs would be required not only to recognize a sovereign Jewish state but to commit themselves at once as part of the settlement to full normalization of relations.



Although Ball went well beyond what the Carter adminstration considered at the time as politically feasible, he accurately reflected the administration in his insistence upon a comprehensive settlement, in his fears for the future if a breakthrough were not soon made, in his assessment of Arab moderation together with his anxiety over warding off the threat of Arab radicalism, and in his conviction that—given the sources of Arab strength—“time is clearly not working on Israel’s side.” Thus, American and Israeli interests, properly perceived, compelled the grand solution Ball outlined. If the Israelis and their American supporters could not be brought to understand this through reason, they would have to be pressured into doing so. Ball did not hesitate to point to the means whereby the American government might bring the Israelis to reason. By contrast, he was remarkably silent about the pressures that might be placed on the Arabs. His essay left the clear impression that these pressures did not exist, and that, if anything, it was the Arabs who might more effectively bring pressure to bear on America.

The Ball effort illuminated the policy landscape, but the light was too bright for the new administration. Political realities required a strategy of indirection, one less overt and more subtle than Ball proposed. The problem was how to get from where the administration found itself to where it wanted to go. As long as the special relationship with Israel remained more or less intact, this would prove to be no easy task. Kissinger, it is true, had used the relationship to establish America as the mediator in the Middle East, and in doing so he had already altered its character, since the new role required greater American pressure on Israel. Still, there were limits to the pressures the Kissinger policy dictated, if only because the concrete concessions he demanded of Israel also remained quite circumscribed. The fabric of the special relationship had begun to show distinct signs of wear at the edges, but it was not yet badly torn.

The policy of the Carter administration clearly necessitated more drastic measures. If Israel opposed the comprehensive settlement the administration had determined to achieve—which it could be expected to do—the special relationship would have to be ended. Indeed, it would have to be changed in any event, since the requirements of the comprehensive settlement the administration envisaged—requirements which reflected what were now the settled imperatives of American policy—could scarcely be reconciled with the character the special relationship had previously taken. The “new” special relationship, if there were to be one, would have to be expressed in the form of a guarantee to Israel that would attend the comprehensive settlement. In the meantime, however, the old relationship stood in the way of such a settlement and would have to be broken.

George Ball had not minced words about this. The administration, he warned, would have to take the bit in its teeth and confront both Israel and its supporters in this country. Ball recalled and held up as an example President Eisenhower’s action of twenty years ago in forcing Israel to withdraw from the Sinai. But the Carter administration, beginning with the President, was not given to the kind of resolute action Ball urged, and the circumstances of 1977 were not those of 1956. Besides, the President had committed himself both before and after his election not to use American military and economic aid to pressure Israel, and had repeatedly criticized Henry Kissinger for having done just this. In politics, commitments are always at a discount, but a decent interval must at least be observed before they are discounted. Caution was required, particularly in the period before the Israeli elections. And there were indications that with the then Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, out of the way, Washington anticipated greater flexibility from his designated successor, Shimon Peres. Instead, the Carter administration was confronted with Menachem Begin.



There is no evidence that the Begin victory affected the essential outlines of American policy. The determination to push toward a comprehensive settlement within a reconstituted Geneva framework in which all the parties to the conflict—hence to the settlement—were represented, as well as to insist that such a settlement include both Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories (with minor modifications of the borders) and the creation of a Palestinian entity with the substance, if not the forms, of independence, were taken quite apart from political developments in Israel. So, too, the overall tactics to be employed were conceived without reference to the particular government in Israel. These tactics may best be described by the same metaphor that described the Kissinger policy. In moving to Geneva and in creating the negotiating framework for Geneva, the administration would proceed step-by-step.

Thus the meaning of UN Resolution 242 would be “clarified” through a series of interpretations which, in their cumulative effect, would enable satisfactory representation of the Palestinians at Geneva and, in broad outline, shape the desired terms of settlement. In the meantime, Israel and its American supporters could also be dealt with in steps, but here according to the formula of Lenin’s famous pamphlet: “Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward.” Confrontations were not to be avoided, since that was impossible. Once they occurred, however, the administration would eventually back a step away. But the retreat would leave the special relationship on a changed, and lower, plateau. The advantages of this tactic are apparent. The element of risk involved in one grand confrontation would be avoided. At the same time, the administration would appear to be bending over backward to accommodate Israel and its supporters while the latter would appear, as ever, inflexible.

The advent of the Begin government did not result in an alteration of tactics but simply made the tactics already chosen a good deal easier to apply. Given Begin’s record, and particularly his well-known position toward the West Bank, the administration seemed to have found an adversary made to order for its tactics. In fact, the practical difference separating the new Israeli Prime Minister from his predecessors was easily exaggerated. The Rabin government—and very likely a Peres government—was no more ready to negotiate Washington’s comprehensive settlement than was Begin. The policy of the Rabin government was to sit tight and to wait. The difference was that in the case of the Rabin government, sitting tight, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza, was justified in terms of security, whereas in the new government it was justified in terms of historic claims and security. In theory, the one policy was provisional, the other permanent, a difference not unimportant for opinion in America. In practice, though, the difference was marginal.

Throughout the summer and early fall of last year the Carter administration addressed its efforts to setting the stage for Geneva. At almost every turn, these efforts were to bring the administration into conflict with the Israeli government, though only on rare occasions with Arab governments. Yet the formal record shows that Washington was asking for concessions from the Arabs as well as from the Israelis. As a June 27 statement of the State Department insisted: “We are not asking for onesided concessions from anyone.” Why, then, did this even-handedness lead to one-sided conflicts?

In part, the answer may be found not so much in what Washington was asking but in the manner in which it was asking. In the June 27 statement, for example, the Arab states were told they “will have to agree to implement a kind of peace which produces confidence in its desirability,” a peace that not only involves satisfactory security arrangements but that “also involves steps toward the normalization of relations with Israel.” Israel was told that it “clearly should withdraw from occupied territories” and that “no territories, including the West Bank, are automatically excluded from the items to be negotiated . . . to exclude any territories strikes us as contradictory to the principle of negotiations without preconditions.”

The statement—in the manner of similar statements of the period—was evidently directed primarily to Israel and not to the Arab states. Its intent was to admonish the Begin government, to warn it of the consequences it might expect unless it became more flexible. Hence the specificity of what was required of Israel and the emphasis with which the requirements were expressed, in contrast to the general, even vague, concessions required of the Arab states.



In large part, however, the conflicts between Washington and Jerusalem were simply the result of the Carter administration’s determination to do precisely what it disavowed doing. Although insistent upon the principle of negotiations without preconditions, Washington was setting, slowly but surely, a number of preconditions. The process of doing so had not started with the coming to power of the Begin government; it had been initiated some months before. There was, moreover, an apparently reasonable ground for doing so—namely, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. For the text of that resolution, taken literally, did not support the principle of negotiations without preconditions. On the contrary, 242 laid down a substantial number of such conditions, in the form of principles that were to guide the course and broadly determine the outcome of negotiations.

It did not matter that these principles could be and were interpreted in a number of different and quite conflicting ways. In the years since the resolution had been passed, there had never been agreement upon what it required. A huge literature, almost theological in flavor, had sprung up devoted to what 242 required, in what order its requirements were to be met, and the character of the negotiating process by which these requirements were to be met. The text of 242 was a delight for the exegetically minded. Not only were there flourishing disagreements over what Resolution 242 said, there were disagreements over what it was. In the statement of the State Department noted above, 242 is variously referred to as a “starting point” for a negotiated peace, a “process of negotiations,” and a “framework for negotiations.”

The many meanings and faces of 242 were of course no accident. The resolution was the product of the parties involved, directly and indirectly, in the Middle East conflict. To be acceptable to them, it had to respond to their disparate interests and, on the whole, it has done so with marked success. The Carter administration found in 242 a ready and useful instrument for advancing its design of a comprehensive peace and, more immediately, for prodding Israel. The Israelis were reminded that every administration since 1967 had “consistently supported” the resolution. This was literally the case. What was not was the implication that every administration had given the same nuanced interpretation of and general policy significance to Resolution 242. In the hands of the present administration, the emphasis on the “territorial” aspects of 242 reflected the change in policy that had taken place. The beauty of 242 was that it helped to obscure the shift under the guise of a consistent devotion to principle.

Even where the famous resolution might have appeared as an obstacle to American policy, it was not. The resolution gave no status to the Palestinians. It did not even speak of Palestinians, let alone of their right to self-determination, but only affirmed the need to “achieve a just settlement of the refugee problem.”3 Given this wording and the circumstances in which it was agreed upon, the most reasonable interpretation was that the resolution assumed a solution of the Palestinian problem within something approaching the old—that is, pre-1967—territorial framework. The Arab states had made it clear, however, that there must be self-determination for the Palestinians and that there would be no Geneva conference without their representation. Before this demand, the administration had not been disposed to literalness in interpreting Resolution 242. The spirit, not the form, of the resolution was the essential thing. But the spirit called for a comprehensive peace, a peace which could not be achieved without satisfactorily addressing the Palestinian issue, by now seen as the very heart of the conflict. The difficulty was that for the Arab states representation meant the PLO, and on this Israel was adamant, since consent to such representation would have been tantamount to recognition.

In the early fall, the Carter administration made a heroic effort to bridge the gap. Although the Arabs had to be satisfied, on this issue the Israelis could not be openly abandoned. The device of a unified Arab delegation, presumably the result of the September talks between Secretary Vance and Foreign Minister Davan, might if liberally interpreted have satisfied the several parties. That device already came very close to covert recognition of the PLO. In the interpretation Dayan himself subsequently was alleged to have made, the Israelis would not look too closely into the credentials of those representing the Palestinians. The Begin government had moved, but Washington sought to move it still further, now through the Russians. In October, a joint Soviet-American statement on the Middle East went beyond any previous American position. A resolution of the Palestinian question, the statement read, must include “insuring the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” within a Geneva peace conference, “with participation in its work of the representatives of all parties involved in the conflict including those of the Palestinian people. . . .” The Soviet-American statement did not “introduce” the Russians into the administration’s plan for a Middle East settlement. They had never been excluded from that plan. The American action did convey the message that Washington would not hesitate to pay for Soviet support, though the ultimate price might be charged to Israel.

Thus, by early November the Carter administration had gone quite far along the road leading to Geneva. Whether the conference would have convened by the year’s end, as the American plan called for, remained doubtful at the time, since the critical issue of Palestinian representation was still unresolved. Whether, if it had convened, it would have marked any real progress is even more doubtful, given the chasm separating the two sides and, for that matter, given the differences among the Arabs themselves. Though the administration had put forth its best effort, there were still distinct limits to the pressure that could be brought to bear on Israel. These limits could not easily be breached so long as the position of the Arab countries—particularly the major Arab country—remained substantially unchanged. It was not enough to argue that the Arab confrontation states had moved toward a more moderate position and that they now accepted Israel as a fact. So long as they insisted that they would not recognize Israel, that they would not acknowledge its legitimacy, and that the prospects for normalization of relations were virtually nonexistent, the Carter administration had to contend with forces at home which continued to place sharp constraints on its policy. The events of November were to change these constraints.




There is little reason to assume that Washington had any foreknowledge of the Sadat initiative. The astonishment with which the Carter administration received the news did not seem feigned. As late as forty-eight hours before the Sadat departure for Jerusalem, more than one high American official had been heard to dismiss the Egyptian’s bid as a “public-relations stunt.” If Washington officialdom was acting, it had seldom before given so dazzling a performance. Was the Israeli government equally taken by surprise? The story persists that it was not, and that although it may not have known the manner in which Sadat would make his initiative, it did know that an initiative would be forthcoming. During the preceding months, Egypt and Israel had conducted negotiations through third parties. They had even agreed upon the approximate terms of a peace settlement, a separate peace. Egypt would get back the Sinai and without the conditions Israel was subsequently to attach. In turn, Cairo would be content with a very general declaration of principles on the disposition of the other territories. Once this was made, Egypt’s duty toward its Arab brothers would be considered fulfilled.

Although dismissed by the involved parties, and treated with skepticism by most Middle East experts, the story is not on its face implausible. For it was not only Jerusalem that was unhappy with the Carter administration’s Geneva-bound policy. Cairo was also unhappy, though for different reasons. The administration’s Geneva vision held out no visible benefits to Egypt. Instead, it promised to advertise its declining influence in Arab councils and its growing inability to exercise any real initiative. Caught between a Syrian-Palestinian bloc, supported by the Soviet Union, and the Begin government, Sadat would have little if any room for maneuver. Even if Israel, under American pressure, made concessions, they would further strengthen the Syrian—and Palestinian—position, not Egypt’s. If Israel resisted making any concessions, Egypt would be no better off. Geneva presented Sadat with the choice either of appearing impotent or—if he sided with the Syrians and the PLO—intransigent. In the latter case, his prospects of receiving the American support he desired—particularly arms—might well diminish further. (To this extent, at least, Sadat may well have thought that in warding off Geneva he was saving the Carter administration from itself.)

In going to Jerusalem, then, Sadat sought to restore a declining position in the Arab world and to recover an independence of action. He had undertaken his dramatic move not only from a sense of growing frustration but from a sense of growing weakness. But if a growing weakness had largely driven him to make his initiative, the same weakness placed constraints on his ability to carry it out. To sustain it, to follow through with a separate peace, he needed all the help and cooperation he could get from Israel and the United States. Indeed, it is arguable that Washington’s support was in the last analysis even more critical than Israel’s. Of course, Jerusalem also had to play the game and this required, at a minimum, demonstrating by word and deed that Egypt would get back, without conditions, what it had lost in the 1967 war. In the event, Israel did not play the game as it might have, and should have, done. The Begin government did not offer to return the Sinai without conditions. Nor did it make the dramatic gesture which it might have made of immediately beginning a thinning out of forces in the Sinai. Instead, it permitted the momentum necessary for concluding a separate peace to falter by setting conditions on its offer to return the Sinai and by spurning the dramatic gesture. To make matters worse, Begin came to Washington to seek approval of his plan for administrative autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.



We can only speculate on why Begin took the actions he did. It does not seem unreasonable to assume, however, that the conditions attached to giving back the Sinai were made in response to what Jerusalem saw as a rising Egyptian price on the West Bank. If so, Begin was using the Sinai as leverage to moderate this rising price. Any other interpretation must assume that the Israeli government was from the outset unwilling to consider the Sinai as the necessary price for peace with Egypt, that to detach Egypt from the conflict, and thereby to transform its character, was not worth abandoning the settlements and military bases in the Rafiah salient. But this assumption must disregard what for two decades had been the cherished vision of Israeli governments, and a vision that Begin had shared with his political opponments. To say that the Israeli Prime Minister should have refrained from using the Sinai as a bargaining counter once he felt the Egyptians were raising their price on the West Bank, that he should have ignored this move and driven ahead on the Sinai, is very different from charging that he was simply unwilling to yield on the issue of the Rafiah salient. The former criticism is serious enough; the latter charge suggests an obduracy and incompetence of an entirely different—and, indeed, implausible—order.

Equally, and perhaps even more important, is the question: why did Begin come to Washington with his plan for the West Bank and Gaza? Why did he thus effectively deal Washington back in the game, the same Washington that had been leaning so heavily on him in the preceding months and that had clearly established the patterns of judging Israeli concessions by the test of their acceptability to the Arab states? Why, indeed, did Begin even need a plan at this point? If Egypt could not be satisfied with the Sinai and a very broad statement of principles, acceptable even by Begin’s standards, it could hardly be satisfied with his plan. For the plan, whatever its real merits as a first step toward a resolution of the Palestinian problem, and they were not inconsiderable, could still only have the effect of reaffirming the position that for the foreseeable future Israel was not prepared to consider self-determination for the Palestinians.

One answer to these questions is that Sadat’s price on the West Bank and Gaza had been impossibly high from the very start, that he had indeed meant what he said in addressing the Knesset, that his aim was a comprehensive peace and only a comprehensive peace, and that Begin, appreciating this, had devised his plan and taken it to Washington for the purpose of countering the effects of Sadat’s initiative. For reasons elaborated elsewhere,4 this answer seems implausible in its interpretation of the Sadat move. But even if it is accepted for the sake of argument, the Begin response was woefully inadequate. The Israeli government could not in this manner counter the effects of so apparently grand a gesture as Sadat had made, and to suppose that it believed otherwise is to impute to it an extraordinary naiveté. Whether Sadat was sincere in putting forth his stated terms of settlement, or whether his entire move had been mere grandstanding for the Americans, a very different response was required. By responding as he did, however, Begin gave every indication that he was not engaging in mere counter-posture. His introduction of the plan and his attempt to elicit Washington’s approval of it may have been mistakes. Still, these actions appear as a serious response to what Begin saw at the time as a new and imposing obstacle in the way of a separate peace with Egypt.

The obstacle, of course, was the Palestinian issue. Had it always been there or had Washington, after its initial surprise and confusion, been instrumental in reintroducing it? Certainly, it had always been apparent that any Egyptian-Israeli agreement would have to deal in some manner with the Palestinians. But the manner in which the issue might be dealt with would evidently depend largely on the position taken by the United States. With strong American support, it might be kept to a modest role in the negotiations. Without such support, this would prove supremely difficult to do, for then Sadat would be fully exposed to his one-time allies. And if their opposition could be sustained, the opposition of Saudi Arabia was a different matter, given Egypt’s continued dependence on Saudi financial support. The Saudis could not be expected to endorse a separate peace that would be seen throughout much of the Arab world as a betrayal of the Palestinians. Their mounting claim to a position of preeminent leadership in this world alone precluded such an endorsement (not to speak of their need to placate—or bribe—the more radical Arab forces in order to insure the survival of the Saudi dynasty). The Saudis might be expected to adjust to a separate peace if confronted by a fait accompli that clearly enjoyed American support, but not otherwise.

It is for these reasons that the position taken by Washington was probably critical in determining the course of events following Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem. And while there is no way of detailing with assurance what this position was, its broad outlines are well enough established by this time. Having once recovered from its initial shock, the Carter administration picked up essentially where it had left off in the weeks preceding the dramatic events of November. Although the goal of Geneva obviously had to be abandoned, Washington continued to insist on a comprehensive peace, or what now was its revised version of such a peace. Accordingly, the Sadat initiative would have to be “broadened” in order to enjoy American support, broadened both with respect to the issues addressed in the ensuing negotiations and to the parties involved. The Palestinian problem could not be dealt with merely by a vague statement of principles. A viable plan would have to be developed for the West Bank and Gaza that insured the legitimate rights of the Palestinians by permitting them to participate in the determination of their future. To this end, Jordan must soon be brought into the negotiations. Beyond Jordan, it was desirable, even necessary, to elicit the support of other parties as well—and, above all, Saudi Arabia. American support, the Egyptians were led to understand, was contingent on meeting these conditions. Meeting them, however, meant that whatever prospects there may have been for a separate peace were virtually doomed.



It was in this manner that Washington intervened to support the Sadat initiative. One immediate effect of the intervention was to cause Sadat to raise his effective price for peace with Israel. After all, he could hardly be placed in the position of asking less from Israel than the Carter administration was asking for him. Another effect was to lead Begin to put forward his plan for the West Bank and Gaza and to seek Washington’s approval of it. The response of the Carter administration was one of tentative and cautious encouragement. Begin was advised to “repackage” his plan and offer it to Cairo. But Sadat was merely embarrassed by it. The Begin proposal could only have the opposite effect of that intended by its author. It would be seen by the Arab world as the open abandonment of their sacred cause. Its rejection by the Arab states whose support the administration considered essential was guaranteed. Riyadh could have no use for a plan whose acceptance would open the Saudis to the charge of betraying the Palestinians. Hussein ridiculed it as a step backward and declared he had no intention of joining the negotiations. His terms for joining were essentially the terms he had offered the Israelis almost four years earlier. He would take back the West Bank, but without conditions.

Whether a separate peace between Egypt and Israel had ever been a solid prospect remains unclear.5 One thing is reasonably clear, however, and that is the effects of Washington’s intervention. At a critical juncture, the Carter administration acted as it might have been expected to act. Given the assumptions it entertained, and the policy to which it was strongly committed, it could have no confidence in the Sadat initiative if the intended outcome of that initiative was a separate peace. Administration spokesmen had little reluctance in saying as much at the time. Nor was Washington prepared to pressure any of the third parties whose support was needed to maintain the momentum created by the trip to Jerusalem. Of these parties, Saudi Arabia was by far the most important. But Riyadh viewed the proceedings in Jerusalem and Cairo with thinly veiled hostility, and Washington, respectful as always of the country now considered an American ally and a great force for moderation in the Middle East, applied no pressure. If anything, such pressure as there was appeared to operate in the opposite direction.

In the period since middle January that has followed the breakdown of negotiations, a period in which there has been little if any real movement, an all too familiar pattern has again emerged. Washington has been fully restored to its former position as mediator between the parties. (Sadat has insisted that the United States is more than a mediator, that it must be considered a “full partner” in the negotiations. The administration is not disposed to disagree.) The initial promise of direct negotiations has been abandoned by Sadat in favor of dealing through the Americans, a pattern that means today, as it meant before November, transmitting pressure to Israel through the Americans. Despite occasional pro-forma appeals to the parties to renew direct negotiations, the Carter administration clearly is not unhappy to resume its former role. Direct negotiations between the parties threatens the loss of control, and raises the specter of a settlement which in Washington’s view may give rise to even greater instability in the region. That specter momentarily arose last November; it is not to be allowed to arise again.

In other respects as well, the pattern of the recent past is apparent. The one-sided conflicts with Israel have once again followed from Washington’s determination to set a number of preconditions for negotiations while nevertheless insisting upon the principle of negotiations without preconditions. And here again Resolution 242 has provided an apparently reasonable basis for doing so, especially as Begin made no small contribution of his own by insisting for a time that the requirement of withdrawal from occupied territories did not of necessity apply to the West Bank and Gaza. That gratuitous, though momentary, insistence apart, the position of Israel is that it is “prepared to negotiate peace treaties in fulfillment of all the principles of the UN Security Council Resolution 242,” and that it agrees that these principles “will serve as the basis for negotiations between Israel and all the neighboring states.” It is not with this commitment that Washington disagrees but with the Israeli government’s continued refusal—in the absence of direct negotiations—to go beyond its offer of last December.

The point is significant and worth emphasis. On the general principles that are to govern both negotiations and an eventual peace there remains very little difference between the two sides. At least this is the case if the statement agreed to by Presidents Sadat and Carter at Aswan in January is taken as the model of such principles. The one point in this statement the Begin government clearly has not as yet agreed to is that “there must be a resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects.” But surely it is not beyond the wit of the parties, if they wish to reach an agreement in principle, to compose this difference.6

The real difference that continues to separate Egypt (together with the United States) and Israel is not one of general principles. Nor is it the Sinai, since the Israelis have let it be known that they would not allow the settlements and air bases in the Sinai to stand in the way of an agreement. Instead, it is the insistence—Egyptian and American—that Israel go beyond the Begin plan and that it do so as a condition for the renewal of negotiations. How much more beyond? The answer remains obscure. Nor is exploring it important in this context. What is important is the manner in which the “more” will be determined by Washington to be sufficient. Here, at least, the answer seems reasonably clear. The adequacy of Israeli concessions will be determined by the Egyptian response to them. And to the extent the Egyptian response is in turn shaped by others, the adequacy of Israeli concessions rests with those who give vital financial support to Egypt and whose moderation and good will Washington too remains as anxious as ever to insure.




The point was made at the outset that over the past five years, the deepening involvement of this country in the Middle East has had its roots in a declining power and a rising vulnerability. Involvement has responded to the perceived imperatives of policy, but these imperatives have been formed from a sense not of strength but of weakness.

These considerations are crucial to understanding America’s Middle East policy since 1973. They explain the fate of the once special relationship with Israel. Before the October war, this relationship expressed the one-sided support the American government was prepared to accord Israel. In Henry Kissinger’s hands, the special relationship took on a new dimension that altered its meaning. Now it was used as a means to win Arab confidence and influence by extracting largely unreciprocated concessions from an Israel that had become ever more dependent on this country. Still, in the Kissinger period the support given Israel retained a special significance while the concessions asked from it remained limited. In the period that has followed Kissinger, the special significance of the support given Israel has virtually disappeared, while the concessions asked from it no longer have readily discernible limits. The Carter administration has effectively ended the special relationship. This is the clear meaning of the recent arms package for Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. It is also the meaning of the care the President has taken to characterize each of these states (and Jordan as well) as America’s “ally and friend.” The transformation in policy begun by Henry Kissinger has thus been carried very far indeed.


1 “An Exchange on the Mideast,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1975-76, p. 217. The statement was made in reply to Shlomo Avineri, who had criticized Brzezinski and others for “overlooking the fact that the real issue for Israel, in the long run, is not security but legitimacy, and that everything in the Middle East revolves around this.”

2 Foreign Affairs, April 1977, pp. 453-71.

3 The “refugees,” it should be recalled, included not only the Arabs who had formerly lived in what was now Israel, together with those who had left the West Bank in 1967, but the Jews who had left Arab lands in the late 1940's and early 1950's and emigrated to Israel.

4 See my article, “The Middle East: For a Separate Peace,” COMMENTARY, March 1978.

5 See the article by Steven J. Rosen beginning on p. 46 of this issue—Ed.

6 The Israelis have agreed that the Palestinians “will have the right to participate in the determination of their future through talks to take place among Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the representatives of the Palestinian Arabs.” Save for stipulating the parties, this statement of the Begin government parallels the Aswan statement. It is true that the Aswan statement also reads that a resolution of the Palestinian problem “must recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.” But unless these legitimate rights encompass an unrestricted right to self-determination—which was expressly denied by the American government—then the most significant of these rights is precisely that of “enabling the Palestinians to participate in the determination of their future.”

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