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Criticizing French socialists in the 1880s, the French Marxist Jules Guesde coined the term "possibilist" to describe what he considered the opportunists and futilely moderate strategy of Paul Brousse and his followers In response, socialist leader Brousse gladly dubbed Guesde and his supporters the "impossibilists" as an emblem of intransigence.
ISRAEL CLEARED OUT the last settlers in Yamin last week. Its army embroiled in the most painful of maneuvers--evacuating fellow citizens coercing fellow Jews--to adhere to a historic peace treaty. To the Israelis, the peace appears increasingly fragile even as they withdraw from the Sinai for the third time in 34 years
Scorned by the Arab world outside of Egypt, rejected by the terrorist group which proclaims itself the representative of the Palestinian people, taken for granted by the democratic countries of Western Europe, buffeted by the policies of its own prime minister and viewed even more blithely by the United States. Israel can be excused for perceiving its isolation and believing that it has shouldered an unreciprocated (except for Anwar Sadat) burden for peace. The burdens of war by contrast have readily been accepted by all parties in the Mideast conflict, whether extremist or expansionist, pan Islam or pan Arab revolutionary or reactionary.
The current struggle in the Middle East is one between possibilists and impossibilists the tragedy lies in the incentive to intransigence on each actor's part. Those who focus on Israel's stubbornness encourage Israel isolation and buttress Menachem Begin's approach by strengthening Israel's adversaries. The vicious rejectionist cycle that ensues holds out little hope for an end to persistent conflict through compromise.
FACTSRARELY GET IN the way of interpretation when it comes to the Middle East because the facts often speak for them selves and are thus avoided Consider these:
The Sinai, Six months after Israel's establishment its troops entered the Sinai for the first time. Egyptian forces led the onslaught on Israel on May 15, 1948, the day after the British mandate over the territory came to an end. Israel staved off the Arab threat but Egypt refused to negotiate a cease-fire. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion dispatched his army into the Sinai in December as part of an effort to achieve leverage for a reconciliation Adhering to a United Nations security council resolution. Ben-Gurion withdrew from the Sinai in search of peace despite his country's inroads toward the Suez Canal. Then and only then did Egypt sign a cease-fire.
Egypt's desire for peace under Gamel Abdol Nasser was a slow process, however, Nasser encouraged the PLO forerunner, the Fedayoun to infiltrate Israeli settlements in the Negev desert through the Gaza Strip. In addition, Egypt kept the Strait of Tiran closed to Israel shipping (the rough equivalent of Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz to the United States--which Jimmy Carter thought so vital that he was willing to invoke the specter of limited nuclear war in such an event). The second Israeli attack, coordinated with the British and French assaults on Egypt's Port Said, resulted in Moshe Dayan's army reaching Sharm el-Sheikh at the Sinai peninsula's southern tip.
Six months later, at the conclusion of the Suez crisis. Israel was again forced to withdraw from the Sinai, and again it had achieved its limited objectives of opening Tiran and halting terrorist infiltration through Gaza. But the Eisenhower administration's hostility towards Israel's tendency to pursue policies independently and strong Soviet support allowed Nasser to deny Israel its two chief objectives-peace with Egypt and the use of the Suez Canal.
Nasser continued to harbor his ambitions for a pan-Arab state with Egyptian hegemony. In May 1967-against the wishes of the Soviets-he mobilized the cream of his army in the Sinai and shut off the Strait of Tiran, two moves designed to provoke Israel. Israel demurred for three weeks before launching the pre-emptive strike which marked the beginning of the Six Day War. For the third time, Israel prevailed in the Sinai. Since its first two withdrawals had opened an avenue for Nasser to threaten Israeli security. Israel decided to hold onto the Sinai as a bargaining chip for peace.
On October 6, 1973, Nasser's successor, Anwar el-Sadat, chose Yom Kippur, Israel's holiest day of the year for a surprise attack. The United States was also preoccupied with Watergate. After teetering on the brink of defeat. Israel managed to beat back the attack and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger '50 managed to negotiate a disengagement agreement using exhaustive shuttle diplomacy.
The October war had two consequences for Sadat. First, his limited success allowed him to recoup some of Egypt's national honor which had been squandered by Nasser's unsuccessful forays. Second, because Sadat could not conquer the Sinai through war, he recognized that it made sense to try to regain it through peace. His historic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 constituted a daring and bold move for peace, for he risked angering the other Arab states in the region. But far from being solely altruistic. Sadat's initiative was carefully calculated. Because he sought peace-for reasons of both interest and idealism-he received what the other Arab states and the PLO considered his just dessert: alienation followed by assassination.
THE CAMPDAVID "framework for peace" of September 1978 ended the stalemate of intractable conflict. Israel surrendered the Sinai, including the Alma oil fields it had developed which would have provided economic security for a country faced with hostility on all sides. By handing back Sharm el-Sheikh and the Rafah salient, Israel also relinquished two key military assets. So fervent was the desire for peace, however, even the hero Dayan (then the foreign minister) assented to total withdrawal when he realized that Egypt would not countenance settlements such as Yamit in the Sinai.
In return, Israel received a pledge of peace and use of the Suez Canal. To stick by his Camp David signature. Begin has been forced to evict and evacuate the ultra-religious settlers in the Sinai and give them substantial economic compensation. As he is pushed from the far right, so he is pressured by the opposition Labor party which opposes his stance on "Judea and Samaria," the occupied West Bank which now has at least one million Palestinians living under Israeli military and administrative rule. While coping with internal pressures-Israeli is, after all, the only democracy in the region-Begin must deal with external pressures of both his friends, foremost the United States, and his enemies.
The Reagan Administration's Arabist posture, most vigorously advocated by former Bechtel president and current Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger '38, denies both the history and the cultural context of the Middle East. In his effort to prop up unstable regimes through the use of arms sales. Weinberger hopes to forge an anti-Soviet consensus among Moslems, Christians and Jews. What be naively fails to recognize is that these regimes seek to use American arms to gird themselves against reform at home and employ them to advance the nationalist, as opposed to American, interests.
Weinberger and Reagan accordingly sold AWACS to Saudi Arabia and reached an agreement to sell advanced weapons to King Hussein of Jordan (whose family came from Saudi Arabia at Britain's behest in 1946). In the process, the U.S. has simply given Begin more incentive to act intransigently and to defy America. Even Abba Eban, foreign minister in the Israeli Labor governments from 1966 to 1974, said at Harvard this month that "it is better to be alive than to be popular-because if I'm dead, I might be briefly popular at the funeral oration, but I won't be around to try to convince people of my worth."
Nevertheless, Begin and Israel remain dangerously isolated in the wake of the Sinai cession. Many informed citizens in this country have started to lean tentatively toward the PLO as the seams of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's West Bank policy shows signs of straining. Without the recent oil glut, pressure on Israel would be greater. Sadat's successor Hosni Mubarak, moreover, has indicated his desire to return to the Arab fold and will likely normalize relations with Iraq by the end of the spring. The diplomatic normalization between Israel and Egypt. Begin's main concession at Camp David has cooled considerably. Mubarak refused to visit Jerusalem last month and Israel stepped up its pressure on the Palestinians in both the West Bank and southern Lebanon. The hazy framework of Palestinian autonomy hammered out at Camp David appears more remote than ever and the ominous reflex is to embrace the PLO or to bring the Soviets into comprehensive negotiations along the lines of the 1973 Geneva talks.
This sort of approach will probably be opposed by an American administration which tries to counter Soviet influence at every step. Still, Reagan's team has already attempted to betray the promises of Camp David by backing the "peace" plan of Saudi Arabia's Prince Fahd, which died last winter because it was not radical enough for the other Arab regimes. Having sternly opposed Camp David, and witnessing a growth in their influence anyway, the Arabs have no incentive to bargain on the only issue that unites them: support of the PLO versus Israel. P>Given the history struggle over the Sinai, it is not surprising that Israelis have their doubts over the durability of the peace, particularly with an American administration showing no aptitude for the problems. And given the continuing debate over the Palestinians and the PLO the significance of the Sinai withdrawal has been taken not as progress toward peace, but as a further indication of peace's elusiveness.
PALESTINIAN WRITERS in this country have argued that the Palestinian problem is the main root of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Walid Khalidi, who with Edward Said is the PLO's best-known supporter here, argued in last summer's Foreign Affairs that by bringing the PLO into negotiations on a Palestinian state the U.S. could stabilize the region's regimes and thus defend its interests. The currents of nationalism, pan-Arabism and pan-Islam, while undeniable, pale in comparison with the Palestinian issue, he contended. All Arab regimes, whether conservative or radical are united in their support for the PLO's claims.
Before assessing this argument and its implications, or analyzing the source of Israel's and the Arab regimes respective stances regarding the Palestinian problem, a few facts-however inconvenient-should be examined:
Jordan: In September 1970, King Hussein killed 10,000 Palestinians and forced the PLO out of Jordan. Since then, Husseins's rule has gone virtually unchallenged. Yet little if any pressure has been placed on Jordan to enter negotiations on the Palestinian question, despite the fact that Transjordan (an emirate created in 1922 by Britain) composes 80 percent of the land mass of historical Palestine, and despite the fact that the West Bank was only lost when Hussein agreed to join Nasser in the folly of the Six Day War.
From 1948 until 1967, Hussein not only occupied but also annexed the West Bank, without international assent and without the population's consent. Jordan, an American client, opposed Camp David. Hussein supports the right of self-determination for Palestinians and maintains good relations with the PLO. Why? Perhaps because he'd prefer to let Israel deal with the PLO rather than welcoming the group himself. Or so history would suggest.
Lebanon and Syria: Upon leaving Jordan unwillingly, the PLO set up camp in Lebanon in 1970. Israel had never meddled in Lebanon until that point. Though Golda Meir made it clear that Israel would not sanction terrorists to its north, Lebanon permitted the PLO to gain a foothold. Joining with indigenous leftist forces, the PLO raided Christian cities until Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad came to the phalangists' aid and began fighting the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies. Assad had observed Hussein's problems and worried about a PLO ascendance.
The Syrian initiative, described as an attempt to keep the peace, succeeded in taming the Palestinians. But Assad, who has recently supported Iran against Iraq in order to tip the scales of the balance of power to his advantage, was not sated. He joined the PLO and betrayed the Christian minority. Today more than 30,000 Syrian troops are entrenched in Lebanon; surface-to-air missiles are aimed at northern Israeli cities; 100,000 Lebanese citizens have died.
The fighting continues. Israel has bombed PLO enclaves, and though it is cavalier to compare casualties inflicted, those attributable to Israel do not begin to approach those attributable to Syria and the PLO. For its consistent opposition to the PLO, Israel has been branded the main obstacles to peace; for its persistent inflammation of a tragie civil war, Syria has escaped condemnation because it is not an ally of the United States but of the Soviet Union.
Besides his hegemonic ambitions and fear of the PLO, there is another reason for Assad's adventurism in Lebanon. As minority ruler, he is under siege from his Moslem opponents domestically. When he ventures into Lebanon to divert attention from his problems at home, an American mediator negotiates a cease-five which allows him to keep his missiles trained on Israel. When Menachem Begin ventures into Lebanon in pursuit of terrorists who oppose his state with every means at their disposal-partly to divert attention from the painful operations in the Sinai necessary for peace-he is accused of ignoring his American ally and of loving war.
Saudi Arabia: The night that the Saudis had extracted the largest single arms sale ever from the United States Senate, its ambassador to the U.N. declared on national television that Saudi Arabia had already done "enough" for the Camp David process. What was "enough?" Nothing, save the isolation of Sadat and the unequivocal rejection of the accord.
That happened last November. Previously, the Reagan Administration's cornerstone of its Mideast strategy (insofar as one could be divined) involved an all-out attack on Lybia's Muammar Qaddifi. Saudi Arabia, obviously very impressed with the tacit quid pro quos which attend a bilateral arms deal, obliged by restoring diplomatic relations with Libya. And when Weinberger arrived in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, he negotiated all night to get the Saudis to sign a communique supporting the much-heralded anti-Soviet consensus. Through perserverance, Weinberger won a remarkable concession: While the Saudis resisted signing the communique, they agreed that a Sultan would sit in at the press conference. How's that for prudent use of political capital?
ISRAEL, AND BEGIN, cannot escape culpability for its part in the conflict's persistence, especially as shown by such provocative actions as the unilateral removal of the elected mayors on the West Bank and the unnecessary annexation of the Golan Heights. But it seems evident from this admittedly brief discussion of the Middle East's complexity that the source of the Arab-Israeli conflict is not primarily the Arab support of the PLO and the Israeli opposition to it as Khalidi argues.
Instead, the one issue that unites Arabs is a common hatred of Israel, apparently reinforced by a common fear of the PLO. Jordan and Lebanon have suffered from the PLO's presence, with Hussein scarred and Lebanon gutted. Syria and Saudi Arabia have no desire to follow in those menacing footsteps. With the Palestinian problem solved through the involvement of Jordan, Egypt. Israel and the PLO, the common fear of the PLO may attenuate. But the internal difficulties of these Arab regimes and the growing pan-Islamic tide led by Iran will not simply disappear. Neither, will Israel, nor presumably, will the common hatred of Israel. Whether out of the need for an external enemy for internal unity, or out of revanchist motivations, it is safe to assume that Israel will remain an object of enmity. Israel's security needs logically become paramount.
And Israel currently sees the PLO as anathema to its security although many reasonable Israelis recognize that some kind of Palestinian automony in the West Bank and Gaza is inevitable, if only for demographic reasons. And the PLO an umbrella organization which encompasses 55 separate branches, seems the most visible and most likely representative of the Palestinian people. But rushing to include the Soviet-backed PLO in bargaining does not immediately ensure a settlement favorable to any party, let along all parties.
The PLO's relations with Arab regimes for example, are not as smooth as they appear on the surface. About 1.3 million Palestinians living in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Israeli territories (according to U.N. estimates) are registered in separate camps. The camps still exist, a PLO official in Damascus told the Associated Press last November because the host Arab countries wanted the Palestinians to live apart. "This is what the (Arab countries) wanted and we were not going against it," the official said.
The PLO receives petrodollar funds from Saudi Arabia. Libya and Kuwait which total about $500 million annually--excluding private subsidies to different PLO factions and military equipment. But that does not erase the fact that Palestinians live in camps or that no Arab country wants PLO influence imported. A PLO representative in the group's New York U.N. Mission, who spoke last week on the condition of anonymity, ingenuously acknowledged that the PLO's relations with Egypt. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Iran are rocky. "We agree on the general end--the establishment of a Palestinian state-but we disagree over the means to the end," the representative said.
But in the Middle East right now, the means are everything. "We refuse to recognize the Zionist entity," the official continued. "There is no legitimacy to the Zionist state. The PLO abides by its covenant statement that the Zionist entity has no right to exist, even though we realize that some future settlement might require harmony. But there can be no harmony with the racist state."
Why is the "Zionist entity" racist? "Because," said the official, "it does not recognize the rights of Palestinians or the PLO." What of the PLO convenant's commitment to the destruction of Israel? "That is a legitimate claim."
THE SEMANTICS OF MUTUAL or implicit recognition, however, do not hold out the prospects of an eventual and enduring settlement. That must be achieved by genuine compromise--Israel must retreat from its stubborn West Bank policy and the PLO must back down from maximalism. Neither the status quo which Begin supports nor the status quo ante which the PLO trumpets has much grounding in the reality or the ideal of pace.
But forces are conspiring in favor of the impossibilists and against the possibilists. The PLO, whose status as the appropriate representative of the Palestinians is questionable, cannot afford to risk the animosity of the Soviets or the other Arab states by entering into a meaningful peace process with Israel that would guarantee Israel security. And Begin has staked too much domestically on Camp David and the West Bank to be able to bargain with the PLO and keep his tenuous hold on parliam0entary power.
The reflex in the United States has been to excoriate Israel on all fronts. But it is eminently hypocritical for a country which likes to bargain from a position of strength with its supposedly mortal enemies to condemn Israel for doing the same with its tangibly mortal enemies. Little attention and even less presciences to Camp David specifically and the Middle East generally has permitted the situation to deteriorate at a time when it should be improving.
So it has become a battle of impossibilists. The U.S. has not courted moderates (except Arab monarchical "moderates") on any side of the Mideast conflict. As a result of this callousness, Begin's fears have become prophecies, even if they are self-fulfilling.
But it remains equally important to remember that Begin has made sacrifices for peace that dwarf any massive case of jet lag suffered by the U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State. The history of the Sinai since 1948 shows that peace is not easily purchased; any Israeli (and Anwar el-Sadat) will testify to that If the Arab regimes are as deeply aggrieved by the plight of the Palestinians as they claim-and truly view the problem as transcending their own nationalist and other considerations--then it is time to disavow impossibilism.
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