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Forty days in the Camp David wilderness

By Pat M. HoltPat M. Holt, a free-lance writer on foreign affairs, is currently lecturing at the University of Texas, Austin. / May 7, 1980



The Middle East peace process may be irreversible, as the Camp David participants have frequently remarked, but this is not the same thing as saying it is unstoppable.

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After their separate visits to the Rose Garden (which has replaced the Oval Office as the center of the American government) Egyptian President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin returned to their respective countries vowing that their subordinates would talk continuously for 40 days in an effort to define what they meant when they agreed at Camp David on autonomy for the Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories. But if each side keeps repeating the same thing, as had been the pattern so far, it does not matter whether they talk for four days, or 40, or 400.

As things stand, there is very little hope for a happy outcome. Begin is obsessed with the notion that the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, as he calls it) is literally a God-given part of Israel. This not only puts the Begin government's position beyond the possibility of compromise; it diverts attention from the legitimate Israeli interests in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip as well. These interests have to do with national security, and there are ways to compromise and protect them at the same time. Indeed, the fundamental Israeli interest can be protected over the long term only by compromise.

The Israelis have solid grounds for fearing that meaningful autonomy for the Palestinians would lead to establishment of a Palestinian state. It is understandable that this prospect makes them nervous. It is understandable that they would not trust UN or other international guarantees. Would they trust the guarantee of an Israeli-American security treaty? Using the turmoil in the Persian Gulf as a springboard, Begin has as much as invited an American military presence in Israel; and that presence alone might provide a more credible guarantee than a treaty (though it would raise a different set of questions for American foreign policy).

The question must also be asked of how Israel is more secure over the long term with a status quo which is likely to deteriorate.

These real questions, however, cannot be addressed in the context of an argument over the Old Testament. This impasse could scarcely have come at a worse time for the other Camp David participants, Presidents Carter and Sadat.

Carter has enough troubles in the Middle East without the breakdown of what had previously been the centerpiece of his Middle Eastern diplomacy. The Political imperatives of his situation at home (as he perceives them anyway) inhibit him from bringing pressure to bear on Begin. (Despite the overwhelming anti-Carter jewish vote in the New York primary, it may be questioned how many American jews would really support the Begin position when presented with a reasonable alternative. It may also be questioned how much Begin would yield to American pressure even if Carter felt free to bring it. Old Testament prophets were notable for their stubbornness. So, for that matter, as we have had occasion to observe in Iran, are modern prophets of the Koran.)

Sadat has staked his political survival on Camp David. In signing that agreement, he isolated himself in the Arab world. He badly needs the Camp David process to be concluded successfully, and he cannot accede to the Begin position without irretrievably further undermining his position. He is the best Arab friend the United States has, or is likely to have. He came to the rescue of the US in bravely giving refuge to the Shah. He mad bases availablefor the ill-fated hostage rescue mission. if for no other reasons than these he deserves at least a modest quid pro quo.

Given Begin's intransigence, both Carter and Sadat are helpless. The solution, if there is one, therefore seems to be the replacement of Begin by an Israeli Prime Minister with more flexibility. There was a time long ago the CIA might have been called on to arrange that. It is to be hoped that such a time has long since passed, that the political processes of Israel will be allowed to work themselves out, and and that Middle East peace is only temporarily postponed.

It is awkward that this situation arises in an American election year. If the Israelis should also have an election this year, it would be difficult to keep the two campaigns from affecting each other.

In the meantime, Carter, Sadat, the Palestinians, and the rest of us, will have to be patient. This is asking a good deal. especially of Sadat and the Palestinians. For the palestinians at least, it may be asking too much.