Don't forget the Palestinians

We are reminded again this week of the significant progress toward peace made under the Camp David accords. Israeli diplomats are in Cairo setting up their first embassy in an Arab country. Egyptian diplomats at this writing were due in Tel Aviv to establish their counterpart. These moves, together with the return to date of two-thirds of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, are tangible benefits of ending a 30-year-old conflict. True, it may be generations before a solid, genuine friendship emerges between Egyptians and Israelis. But the healing of animosities has begun, and that counts much in today's turbulent world.

Yet the focus today rests less on progress to date than on eroded expectations for the future. What of the secondm Camp David agreement, the one calling for "full autonomy" for the West Bank and Gaza? That seems to have fallen victim to the events in Iran and Afghanistan as well as the American political campaign. The US foreign policy talk is all about countering the Russians, setting up bases in the Gulf region, protecting the oil lifeline. Publicly there seems scarcely a word about getting to the heart of continuing tensions in the Middle East -- failure to resolve the long-standing issue of self-determination for the Palestinians.

It should not be lost on Americans that the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other Gulf nations are not rushing to embrace the United States in the wake of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The Russians are feared, yes. But there is hostility toward the US, too, a deepening suspicion that Americans have one thing on their mind -- oil -- and not the best interests of the powers in the region. That is not the case. But, in the eyes of many Arabs, there is little difference between the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the continued Israeli occupation of Arab land in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. The US is castigated for having demanded Arab support for sanctions against Iran to secure release of 50 hostages -- even while a million Palestinians have been held hostage for 20 years.

The Carter administration is aware of these feelings and probably sympathizes with them. But the 1980 election seems to have restrained the President from giving concerted thought to a new initiative on the Palestinian question. None of the candidates, in fact, seems prepared to incur the displeasure of Jewish voters at this sensitive time (even John Connally appears to be revising an earlier pro-Arab position). But is this wise? The supply of Middle East oil to the West is endangered less by an overt Soviet attack in the Gulf, which virtually no one regards as a serious possibility, than by another outbreak of Arab-Israeli tensions or another oil embargo by the Saudis and others frustrated over lack of progress on the West Bank issue.

In fairness, some attention has been given to the autonomy talks. US envoy Sol Linowitz together with the Egyptian and Israeli delegations have agreed on a package of responsibilities for a self-governing council in the West Bank and Gaza. But the key issues -- security, land, water, and the status of the Arab residents of Jerusalem -- have yet to be negotiated. At this juncture it is doubtful the May deadline for completing the talks will be met. The intransigence of the Begin government on these issues and the recent decision of the Israeli Cabinet to support settlement by Jews in the Arab city of Hebron pose formidable obstacles for the negotiations. Indeed the move with respect to Hebron raises anew the question of how serious Israel really is about granting autonomy. It is hard to view it other than confirming Israel's expansionist, annexationist aims.

We would urge Mr. Carter not to postpone this whole critical problem until after the election. Military tough talk may have the most public appeal, in his view. But the US national interest in the Gulf cannot be protected without a political solution, no matter how many "bases" are set up or "rapid deployment forces" dispatched. The American public certainly knows that. Even the American Jewish community must see it is in Israel's long-term interest to press for a just settlement and to avoid provocative acts in the West Bank that inflame passions and undermine the negotiations. Can it not be candidly stated by Jewish leaders that, by permitting more and more Jews to take Arab land, Israel only enhances its own security problems and sows the seeds of its own destruction? It is, after all, the preservation of Israel as well as the establishment of a homeland for the Palestinians which the Camp David accords seek to achieve.

The Palestinian question, in short, is neglected at growing peril. Far from being a secondary issue, trailing the more dramatic events in Tehran and Iran, it lies at the very core of a solution to the problem of stability in the Middle East. The United States would do well to get on with it.

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