Begin's Tragic Blunder


WHILE the rest of the world was watching the Polish crisis unfold, the Israeli government last month took a step that could also threaten world peace. By annexing the Golan Heights--the strategic high ground that Israel has occupied since its 1967 defeat of Syria--Prime Minister Menachem Begin helped undermine the codes of international cooperation and respect that are his nation's only long-run hope for stability.

Begin's startling push for annexation caught even his advisers by surprise. Fearing extensive public discussion, his ruling Likud party pushed the measure through the Israeli Knesset after just six hours of debate. The Prime Minister never bothered to explain why forcing the inhabitants of the Golan to abide by Israeli law was suddenly so critical, and instead he recalled past Syrian injustices to Israel. The timing was perfect; in addition to the Polish confrontation, Syrian troops are tied down as "peace-keepers" in Lebanon, and the United States and Egypt seem determined not to provoke an Israeli retreat from the Sinai withdrawal scheduled for April. With Israeli conservatives clamoring for aggressive action. Begin's initiative appears to have been grounded only in opportunism.

For all who, like us, admire Israel December's diplomatic pre-emptive strike was disheartening. No nation, of course, can be expected to sit still while others prepare to attack it. But, particularly with Syria divided at home and tied down abroad, no such threat loomed last month. It is thus ironic that a nation that thrives on--and usually deserves--a peace-loving reputation should so flout international law.

In the long run, Israel's best hope for peace lies in negotiation, compromise, and cultivation of its reputation for tough prudence. The road to peace will likely include Israeli concessions--like the Camp David accord, which helped underscore the nation's capacity for farsightedness. That Israel had adhered to its principles so often in the past should not subject it to a higher standard of diplomatic morality. But Begin and Israel's future leaders should realize that the nation's own long-range interest in peace will be better served by using words and not weapons, accords and not faits accompli.

Syria's claim to the Golan Heights is no more tenable than Israel's. In advocating more diplomatic Israeli tactics, we do not mean to support Syria's refusal to recognize Israel or its generally belligerent stance, as symbolized by its refusal to remove its surface-to-air missles from Lebanon. But the Israeli suggestion that its security would be bolstered by annexation is equally dubious--given that Israel already occupied the Heights.


The United States was right to voice its disappointment in Israel for its action. Though some U.S. policymakers were foolish enough to suggest that Israel was morally or legally bound to notify the United States in advance, common sense and Israeli self-interest dictate that it should have informed its principal ally beforehand.

In strongly counseling Israel to adhere to the Camp David accords--and specifically to its pledge to yield the Sinai--the United States was right on the mark. Should Israel renege on that treaty, it would jettison all hope of peace in the Middle East. That, for all who find Israel an inspiration and a hope for the future, would be tragic.