The Art of the Possibilist


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."