The Middle East problem now

The United States cannot deal with the Middle East problem piecemeal. Those who recommend that we do so risk a more dangerous Middle East. The "Middle East problem" is not just how to meet the Soviet thrust toward the strategic Persian Gulf area. It is not just how to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Palestinian problem. It is not just how to assure a steady flow of oil.

The "Middle East problem" is all of these issues -- and more. The challenge is to conduct a policy that deals with them all at the same time this area is undergoing profound social, economic, and political change.

We do not have the luxury of addressing one part of the Middle East problem at a time. And we cannot deal with each issue separately, even though we want to avoid specific linkage. They are all parts of one world view when seen from the Middle East.

The US view of the Soviet threat starts from concern about Soviet control over the flow of oil to the free world. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan underscores that threat partly because the turmoil in neighboring Iran tempts Moscow to set up a similar military position in Iran on the Persian Gulf.

The people of the Middle East are keenly aware of Soviet military aggression. But the Soviet threat looks different through the eyes of moderate Arabs.They see the USSR strengthening its own position by exploiting extremist groups in the region who thrive on instability.They know that instability is likely in one of the fastest-changing areas of the world today.

They see the Soviets using the Arab-Israeli conflict as another wedge for broadening their position. They see the Soviets taking a free ride by backing the frustated Palestinian nationalists without really helping them.

They see the Palestinian problem partly as a security problem. To be sure, it is also the symbol to them of injustice and of Arab humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism. But Palestinians occupy key positions in many of the Gulf societies. And moderate Arabs see an unresolved Palestinian problem as a club the radicals can hit them with -- especially if those moderates cooperate with the US.

They see the Soviets exploiting further Arab-Israeli fighting -- another cause of instability.

Arab cooperation with the US in blunting the Soviet strategic threat will depend on US cooperation with Arabs in meeting the security threast as they see itm -- and in reducing causes of instability. As an unofficial Egyptian recently put it: "For you to define the threat only as you see it and not to understand how to see it is intellectual imperialism. If you ignore the hopes and fears or our people, you cannot expect to be strong here."

The Soviet threat looks different through Israeli eyes, too.

Israeli is naturally preoccupied with security on its immediate borders. Israelis have normally left the Soviet military threat to the US.

The immediate security threat, as Israelis see it, is from Arab states which they believe reject Israeli's existence. Israel sees Moscow backing some of those Arab states to improve its own position.

Apart from Egypt, Israelis do not always see that some Arab states fear Soviet objectives as much as Israelis do. They are uneasy seeing the US in too close a relationship with powerful Arabs -- even to check Soviet pressures.

The heart of Israel's long-term security lies in recognition and acceptance by other states in the Middle East -- as well as the undoubted ability to defend itself. Israel's security requires a sound resolution of its conflict with the Arabs.

If we ignore the view that security is threatened as much by an unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict as by direct Soviet aggression, many Middle Easterners will go slow in security cooperation with us. They will eventually try to force us to pay attention to the threat as they see it by using economic pressure or military force.

The way to win cooperation is not to think of security as mainly a military problem. If we do, we will get much less than the cooperation we seek -- on both security and economic matters. The way to win security cooperation is to define the threat broadly as others see it while preserving our own global perspective. If we do, we will get much more of the cooperation we seek.

How do we address the security problem as Middle Easterners see it?

There is no question that most leaders in the Middle East expect the US to check the Soviets militarily. They will, therefore, listen carefully to our strategic thinking. Their ability to cooperate, however, will depend on local and regional issues.

For the Arabs, reducing tension which the USSR can exploit requires dealing convincingly with the Palestinian problem. For moderates, this means developing an opportunity for Palestinians to determine their own future in an honorable way that would enable them to live at peace with their neighbors.

For the Israelis, security begins with Israel's own military strength to defeat any Arab attack and with the US security umbrella. It also requires reducing potential military danger from the West Bank. Eventually it requires Arab recognition of Israel and readiness to make peace.

Some Israelis talk of a Palestinian state as potentially a Soviet-supported threat to Israel. These real security concerns often become tangled with the objective of some Israelis to make all the West Bank part of Israel.

In the eyes of Middle Easterners, dealing with security and the strategic balance requires dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Camp David framework set up for the first time a negotiation in which the Israeli security and Palestinian interests are on the same agenda. The issue remains how to involve both Palestinians and Israelis in such a negotiation.

Two critical ingredients have been missing from this negotiation: (1) The Palestinian National Charter gives Israel the impression that there is no Palestinian commitment to make peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. Continuing terrorist attacks reinforce the Israeli impression. (2) The Israeli policy of placing settlements in the West Bank gives Arabs the impression that there is no Israeli commitment to accept the Palestinian Arab homeland they seek.

What opened the door wide to peace between Egypt and Israel were President Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem and Israel's response. More than words, Sadat demonstrated Egypt's recognition of Israel and readiness for peace and normal relations. With the promise of peace, Israel negotiated withdrawal of both military forces and civilian settlements from Sinai.

By making peace between Israel and the Palestinian people look possible, the Palestinians could open the way to the next steps toward peace. An unambiguous declaration of Palestinian readiness to make peace would not require them to give up a negotiating chip because they could condition it on a reciprocal Israeli commitment.

An Israeli initiative to produce a negotiation could also have important results.

How the Palestinians would organize themselves for negotiation would be part of the Palestinian position. Both the Palestine Liberation Organization and leaders in the West Bank and Gaza would play critical roles in crystallizing that position.

There is no substitute for negotiation. That is why efforts must be redoubled to find a basis for negotiation which can involve both Israelis and Palestinians. Europeans could play an important role -- provided their objective is engaging both sides in negotiation. Only a negotiated agreement can change the situation on the ground.

To scrap the Camp David framework would be unwise, even though it has not accomplished all we wanted. It was hammered out on the anvil of political realities as far as it could go. It was approved by the Egyptian and Israeli parliaments. Its approach is realistic.

The problem is not to start over but to build from Camp David a negotiating process that will engage Palestinians and other Arabs with Israelis in practical moves toward peace.

Neither a Palestinian settlement nor an Arab-Israeli peace will alone assure stability in the Middle East. Neither will assure adequate oil supply. Neither will stop the Soviets. Peace is not a panacea. The Arab-Israeli conflict is not the only conflict or cause of instability in the Middle East.

It is equally true, however, that deadlock and utter lack of hope for the Palestinians will virtually assure instability and prolonged war against Israel. Continuing deadlock can gradually force moderates into the rejectionist camp. It can lead to further conflict. It can, in part, determine the political shape of the Middle East for the rest of this decade.

Whatever else we may need to do, moving the Arab-Israeli conflict toward resolution is a key to our strategic position in the Middle East. Peacemaking is power.When the US shows its power as a peacemaker, its position in the world is strengthened.

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