What next in Begin-Saudi battle for Reagan's favor; Begin: U.S. must wait
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin has left the Reagan administration "twisting and turning slowly in the wind" on two key issues, both crucial to the emerging American blueprint for security and peace in the Middle East.
1. The role of Saudi Arabia in overall United States strategy, which the Saudis are making dependent on getting the five sophisticated AWACS surveillance planes they have on order.
2. The "full autonomy" for the Palestinians promised in the Camp David accord.
On both issues, the US would have liked some "give" from Israel. But Mr. Begin is flying back to Israel Sept. 14 without making any visible commitment on either. Rather, he has skillfully shifted the focus of debate away from the Israeli reluctance to offer meaningful Palestinian autonomy and toward the controversial Reagan plan to supply the Saudis with AWACS.
The AWACS deal itself is in danger of being vetoed by pro-Israel votes in both houses of the US Congress before the legal deadline on Oct. 30. Mr. Begin can say, with literal and legal correctness, as he has done several times since his meeting with Mr. Reagan last week:
"We do not interfere in the discussions between two branches of the American Congress. But . . . we are duty bound to tell the innermost truth, and that is that the matter is very dangerous to our national security."
This appears to have been enough to encourage the leader of the pro-Israel lobby on the AWACS deal in the Senate, Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon, to press ahead with his campaign on Capitol Hill to block the deal.
As a sweetener to buy off Mr. Begin and the pro-Israel lobby on the AWACS issue, the Reagan administration last week offered the Israeli prime minister greater strategic cooperation between the US and Israeli in overall Middle East defense planning. Three areas were specified: joint naval maneuvers, the stockpiling of American medical supplies in Israeli, and joint planning to counter any Soviet threat.
But for many Israelis the bloom on this offer may well be impaired by the publicity attending US Secretary of State Alexander Haig's prompt journey to Spain to reassure Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Fahd (vacationing near Malaga) that the proposed arrangements with Israel are mainly symbolic.
And 24 hours later high Pentagon officials were saying that if the AWACS deal were blocked, the proposed strategic cooperation with Israel would be "jeopardized." This despite the fact that both Mr. Haig and Mr. Begin have insisted that there is no such quid pro quo involved.
As for Palestinian autonomy, all signs point to its having been overshadowed as an issue in the Reagan-Begin talks by the difference of opinion over the Saudi AWACS deal. On NBC television Sept. 13, Mr. Begin asserted that the two men had not gone into detail about their respective interpretations of autonomy. In any case, the Israeli leader had managed -- at his late August meeting in Alexandria with Egyptian President Sadat -- to defuse the Palestinian question as a potential source of divisiveness in his discussions with the US president.
He did this by securing Mr. Sadat's outwardly mellow and unconditional consent to resumption on Sept. 23 of the suspended autonomy talks. Mr. Sadat's cooperativeness undoubtedly sprang from his overriding concern in his relations with Israel: Not to give Mr. Begin any excuse whatever to renege on the Israeli commitment to withdraw next April from the last segment of Sinai.
In addition, Mr. Begin could refer Mr. Reagan to the recent, apparently conciliatory gestures toward the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza from the new and hitherto super-hawkish Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
Yet it remains a fact that Mr. Begin has not budged one inch from his declared intent fully to annex in due course Judea and Samaria (as he calls the West Bank).
As for "the Sharon scenario," as Jerusalem Post military correspondent Hirsh Goodman calls it, anyone (in Mr. Goodman's words) "who deluded himself that Sharon the maximalist had changed his spots can rest assured that this is not the case. The retention of the Golan Heights and the West Bank and Gaza are all integral to his security concept, as is continued Israeli settlement in these regions. . . .
"In fact, on reflection, his desire to make life more tolerable for the inhabitants of the territories could be seen more as a means of perpetuating Israeli rule over these people than as a means of working toward a political solution granting [Palestinian] independence. . . . Peace, or other nonbelligerency in the region will depend on the other side perpetuating the current status quo."
Short-term, then, it can be argued that Mr. Begin's first encounter with President Reagan was for him a tour de forcem -- all the more so, since many observers had originally seen him coming to Washington this time in a position of weakness, relative to his earlier visits to the US since becoming prime minister.
Whether the long-term verdict will be different remains to be seen.