Five false assumptions about the Middle East

By , Talcott W. Seelye retired from the US foreign service recently after over 32 years of service, mainly in the Middle East. Among his assignments were ambassador to Tunisia (1972-76), special presidential envoy to Lebanon (1976), and ambassador to Syria (1978-81).

There is an increasing recognition on the part of Americans that United States policy in the Middle East must be balanced; that while our relationship with Israel must remain special, it should not be exclusive; and that while we must continue to support Israel's integrity and security, we must not support all of Israel's policies -- especially those which jeopardize our broad national interests in the area. These include moving toward an Arab-Israeli peace, containing the Soviet presence, and curbing radical Arab influence.

There is also a healthy dialogue today in the American press as to how to advance these interests. In this process, however, we must avoid pitfalls flowing from several false assumptions. Let me identify them and provide some clarifications.

Item one: If Israel gets off the Golan Heights, Israel will again become a target for Syrian guns. It is an historical fact that Syrian guns only started firing down upon Israelis after Israel had violated the 1948 armistice agreement by moving into the demilitarized zone created by this agreement and located at the base of the Golan Heights. Also, in violation of the agreement, Israel forced Syrian farmers cultivating the land there to withdraw.

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In any case, it is clear to everyone -- including the Syrian Government -- that the only way to get the Israelis off these heights is to demilitarize the Golan, presumably under a US-Soviet guarantee. A demilitarized Golan in the context of a peace settlement is certainly more congenial to both Israel's and Syria's long-term interests than continued Israeli occupation of the Golan in a state of permanent confrontation.

Item two: Syria is unalterably opposed to peace and therefore there is no point in including Syria in the peace negotiating process. It is true that Syria helped sabotage efforts to bring about the Geneva Conference in 1977; that Syria's public rhetoric is stridently anti-US, anti-Israeli and antipeace; and that the behaviour of the Syrian representative at the UN suggests that Syria will never make peace on reasonable terms.

Yet, as one who has just served for three years in Syria, I can state that Syrian public rhetoric does not necessarily reflect Syrian policy and that President Hafez al-Assad would be prepared to involve Syria in the peace negotiating process if: (1) there were clear indications that Israel were prepared to make the necessary concessions for peace (such as withdrawing from the occupied territories, including in particular the Golan); and (2) if the Palestinian leadership, i.e., the PLO, could be brought into the process.

Item three: The Fahd peace plan is tantamount to dismantling Israel. The Fahd peace plan, as some allege, not only does not propose dismantling Israel, but is also not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. It should be understood for what it was intended to be: a Saudi alternative to the Camp David negotiating framework. In essence, it echoes the famous UN Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories in return for Arab acceptance of Israel and peace, adding a Palestinian dimension.

The recent backpedaling of the Saudi foreign ministry regarding Saudi Arabia's stated acceptance of the state of Israel, within the framework of the plan, must be understood in the context of inter-Arab political dynamics. Certainly, the Saudis -- indeed the Arabs as a whole -- will accept Israel if the terms are right. It is a fact that the Arab mainstream position towards Israel has evolved tremendously in the last decade - something which Israel, understandably, finds difficult to comprehend. The Arab position is no longer one of wanting to dismember Israel or even to go back to the 1947 UN partition plan. Instead, the consensus Arab view has become one of accepting Israel on the basis of the 1967 boundaries with, of course, certain provisos concerning the Palestinians and Jerusalem.

Item four: The Soviets are well entrenched in the Middle East and the US needs Israel's help to dislodge them. Fortunately, the only Arab countries in which the Soviets have established a significant foothold are South Yemen and Libya. Saudi Arabia has no relations with the USSR; the Persian Gulf states and Oman are anti-Soviet; so are Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and North Yemen (to a great extent); Syria and Iraq, with which the USSR has friendship treaty, continue to avoid too tight a Soviet embrace. In both countries, the communist party is circumscribed and each government pursues its vital policy interests without recourse to the Soviets.

Of course, this situation may not last. Indeed if we don't move more effectively toward achieving peace soon, the expansion of Soviet influence in the area will be facilitated.

As for the Israeli role, the more we low key our military support to Israel, the better the chances are to build up Arab resolve to resist the potential Soviet threat. A US alliance with Israel, which is what we state we have, precludes any such alliance with any Arab state -- at least as long as the Palestinian question remains unresolved.

Item five: A basic issue in the Middle East today is the clash of Christianity with Islam. While it is correct to say that there is an Islamic revival, it is directed less at Christianity than it is at so-called ''imperialist'' influences (such as in the case of Iran) or at unpopular secularist governments (such as Syria). It is said that the genesis of this movement is the failure of the Westernization-modernization process to solve third world problems. In its fundamentalist form, the movement looks to the Koran for ways of meeting the needs of changing societies. The movement has many colorations, is certainly not monolithic and, in the Arab world, it constitutes no appreciable threat to Western interests.

Indeed, in Saudi Arabia a strong adherence to Islam buttresses this moderate regime. In Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, and the Persian Gulf states, secularism is sufficiently ingrained and the modernization process is well enough along that the fundamentalist Islamic revival is unlikely to catch fire in these countries. Some of the most ardent advocates of the Arab nationalist movement have been and are Christian, as are several of the key PLO leaders. In any case, as stated earlier, fundamentalist Islam's bete noire is not Christianity.

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