Arming Arabs: the lessons of history

By , Wilbur Crane Eveland has been associated with the Middle East in US government and private industry capacities since 1948. He is the author of "Ropes of Sand: America's Failure in the Middle East."

Members of Congress mobilizing to veto the sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia would do well to consider the lessons of history. In 1955 the Eisenhower administration reneged on a pledge to sell arms to Egypt. That set in motion a series of adverse developments from which the West may never recover.

President Carter sent radar surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia to protect one of the free world's most vital resources. Sixty percent of the West's known oil reserves are located in the Persian Gulf, nearly half of them in Saudi Arabia. One bomb properly dropped on the Ras Tanura oilfield complex world take out the source of six million barrels of oil a day -- enough to paralyze the economy of Japan and severely cripple NATO's capabilities.

In 1955 access to another vital Middle East resource was at stake: the Suez Canal. Through it passed a portion of the region's oil, but the overriding value of the canal was its importance as a commercial and military lifeline between Western Europe and the East.

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Largely owing to US efforts, Britain and Egypt reached agreement in 1954 for the evacuation of the huge British base at Suez and for Egyptian forces to assume responsibility for defense of the strategic international waterway. A mission was sent to Cairo to negotiate with President Nasser an agreed list of defensive armaments to be supplied under President Eisenhower's commitment to assist Egypt in protecting the canal.

In an effort to block the US-Egypt arms agreement, Israeli saboteurs had bombed British and American installations in Cairo. Israel's army then escalated its attacks on Egyptian troops and civilians in Sinai and Gaza. France had agreed to supply Israel with tanks and jet aircraft, but US ambivalence with respect to arms for Egypt continued for 10 months.

When a last-ditch appeal for arms by Nasser's personal representative was rebuffed in Washington, the Egyptian president signed an arms agreement with Czechoslovakia. Within months, Israeli attacks on Syria caused that country to break off negotiations to purchase a small supply of US weapons; the Soviet bloc has since been Syria's arms supplier.

Neither Congress nor the Reagan administration need be reminded of the instability and fighting that followed after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and Britain, France, and Israel resorted to war to punish Egypt. Nor is there disagreement that the primary threat to Western interests in the Middle East is the proliferation of Soviet influence that started in 1955.

The issue being contested in Washington is whether the sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia will pose a greater threat to Israel's security than it will accomplish by enhancing the ability of the United States to defend the Persian Gulf's oilfields. President Reagan has just reaffirmed a US commitment to sustain Israel's qualitative military superiority over the combined Arab armies. He also agreed to enter into joint-planning for Israel to play a role in the support of US forces designated to defend the Middle East against Russia.

Those who question Saudi Arabia's willingness and ability to contribute to the defense of the Middle East should be reminded that the Saudis were doing this before the state of Israel was created. Until 1962 the US Air Force's access to Dhahran airfield provided facilities both for protecting the Middle East's petroleum resources and for the Strategic Air Command's patrols of Russia's southern flank.

Ironically, USAF bombers and fighters might today be based in Saudi Arabia had it not been for pressure exerted during the 1950s by America's partners in the Camp David frameworks for peace. A combination of nationalistic agitation against foreign bases from Egypt and protests by the Israel lobby over a ban on stationing Jewish airmen at Dhahran brought about a Saudi-US consensus that the airfield agreement should not be renewed.

Today the Reagan administration and Congress agree that the Camp David frameworks should be the keystone of US Middle East policy. Some members of Congress seem to have forgotten -- or never knew -- that the breakdown of the Eisenhower administration's arms negotiations with Egypt in 1955 signaled the end of secret, US-sponsored peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt, as well as a promising project to divide the waters of the Jordan and resettle 900,000 Palestinians on the West Bank.

A nine-point Israeli peace proposal made to President Nasser, through US intermediaries, was scuttled when Prime Minister Ben-Gurion opted to adopt a proposal (advocated by Menachem Begin) to join Britain and France in launching a preventative ware on Egypt in 1956. So too died the Jordan Valley Development Plan being negotiated by President Eisenhower's personal envoy, Eric Johnston.

Such opportunities will never occur again, but there are current prospects for peace that should not be prejudiced by those in Congress who oppose the AWACS sale solely on the basis of presumed threats to Israel's security -- as if it were synonymous with that of the entire noncommunist world.

President Sadat urged President Reagan to capitalize on the precedent established by US ambassador Habib's negotiation of a ceasefire between Israel and PLO forces in Lebanon. This agreement would never have been possible but for the role of intermediary played by Saudi Arabia. Since then the Saudis have blocked an OPEC proposal for higher oil prices, and Crown Prince Fahd has offered a peace proposal under which the Arabs would recognize Israel's "right to live in peace."

No serious student of the Middle East would hold that comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreements are possible without at least the tacit support of Saudi Arabia.Nor does any other country have the slightest capability of inducing the PLO to accept the autonomous approach to self-determination envisaged at Camp David. Now the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates -- have endorsed the eight-point plan advanced by Crown Prince Fahd for resolving the Arab-Israel conflict.

All of this means that there now exists, for the first time in history, bases for negotiating peace agreements that will permit Israel to live in peace. It is to be expected that both the Arabs and the Israelis would put their maximum demands on the table first. The keystone to starting negotiations lies in Saudi Arabia, however, and if a veto of the AWACS sale stifles this initiative the prospects of peace will be damaged severely.

Finally, the entire debate is about aircraft to be delivered in 1985 under stringent US controls. If the energy and ingenuity being expended on Capitol Hill to defeat a US commitment were instead applied during the next few years to finding a solution to the Palestinian dilemma, the problem of Israel's security, might be solved. Israel itself could contribute to a solution by defining the final borders within which it asks to live in peace. Since Prime Minister Ben-Gurion unilaterally repudiated the 1949 armistice agreements with the Arabs in 1956, no Israeli government has been willing to do that.

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