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After Sinai evacuation--what?

By Gideon RafaelGideon Rafael, former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations is author of the recently published ''Destination Peace - Three Decades of Israeli Foreign Policy.'' / February 10, 1982

With the approach of Evacuation Day the temperature in the Middle East is rising rapidly. A peculiar strain of spring fever is spreading. It alarms the capitals of the world, no less than the two signatories of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

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It results from a variety of factors: from Israel's despairing view of a world void of moral restraints and aligned in inexorable enmity against the Jewish people; from apprehensions that after Israel's withdrawal from Sinai the peace process will wither away, that Egypt will turn its back on Israel, refashion its Arab alliances, and support with increased vigor the cause of Palestinian self-determination. The tension is caused by the recalcitrance and militancy of the Arab rejectionist front and the abiding destructive fury of the PLO in all its emanations. It is heightened by the specter of growing Soviet interventionism, condemned but not checked by the West; by mounting Soviet incitement against Israel and by a well-founded concern that the Soviet Union lies in ambush for a diversionary opportunity in the Middle East. Israel's lightning preemptive strikes, highlighted by unrestrained verbal effusions, have done their part to intensify the state of agitation.

But the United States, too, with all its useful involvement in the peace process and its far-reaching commitments to the parties, cannot be completely absolved from responsibility for the present state of incertitude. The Reagan administration has not yet succeeded in convincing the governments concerned that it possesses a workable, coherent, and balanced Middle East policy. Admittedly, it has made known its intention to secure an increased American military presence in the area. It has propagated the idea of a ''strategic consensus,'' rallying all regional forces prepared to resist Soviet designs in the area, meanwhile deferring American preoccupations with the Arab-Israel contentions. A difficult proposition indeed, as events are proving with mounting urgency.

In the absence of a coordinated policy related to the specifics of the controversial issues troubling the region, Washington proceeded in leaps and bounds. It sold AWACS and F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. As compensation it reluctantly signed an understanding on strategic cooperation with Israel, a memorandum which was as shortlived as it was insubstantial. It undertook to reequip the Egyptian Army and initiated joint military exercises with it. But it failed to obtain in return Egypt's consent to operate even for a limited period the Sinai air bases, the most advanced installations in the Middle East, to be abandoned by Israel in April.

The availability of these bases to the US would not only have increased its defense capabilities in the Middle East and bolstered the security of the areas as a whole, but, no less important, it would have strengthened the faith of Israel in the solidity and durability of the peace. It might have provided it with a greater sense of security, inducing it in due time to mitigate its position on the future of the West Bank.

In the past year Washington assigned the Palestinian autonomy talks a rather lowly place on its agenda. It seems that the late President Sadat succeeded in convincing President Reagan of their futility under the existing circumstances. They agreed to proceed in low gear for the time being and to give them a powerful push after the completion of the Sinai evacuation.