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The Israelis, the Palestinians -- and the US

By Robert R. BowieRobert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for 35 years while serving on the Harvard faculty, in various government posts, and as a consultant. / July 2, 1982



The Israeli invasion of Lebanon inevitably evokes feelings of horror, shame, and disgust. Horror at its ruthless brutality. Shame for the supine complicity of our United States government. And disgust at the uncritical disregard of Israel's real aims.

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For the Israel of Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Sharon, the invasion serves the expansionist strategy of absorbing the occupied West Bank and Gaza into Israel and finally foreclosing for the 1.4 million Palestinians there any hope of a homeland.

As the initial step, Egypt was neutralized by the peace treaty with Sadat. The Camp David autonomy talks were a deception to gain time for stepping up Israeli settlements in the occupied territories while repressing their inhabitants. Now military might has been used to ''pacify'' Lebanon and destroy the PLO militarily and weaken it politically. With Syria and other Arab states cowed, Israel hopes to work its will in the West Bank and Gaza.

These Israeli aims exclude any solution based on UN Resolution 242 which called for trading occupied lands for peace and security. That is why Begin and his ministers poured such vitriol on the peace proposal by then Crown Prince Fahd, who is now King of Saudi Arabia.

Yet even wiping out the PLO would not get rid of the Palestinian claim for self-determination.

This callous Israeli effort to subjugate and suppress another people should outrage our concern for human rights and freedom so stressed in President Reagan's speeches. It also undercuts vital US interests in the region. Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states are already troubled by Iranian fundamentalism and local rivalries. They fear the radicalizing impact of Israeli actions, and of the failure to deal with the Palestinian issue; they see the US as subservient to Israel and unreliable. In consequence, the US is rapidly losing respect and influence among the moderate regimes.

After a cease-fire, the urgent problems in Lebanon must not be allowed to divert attention from the Palestinian problem. On that issue the US should promptly go back to basic principles. It should state unequivocally its firm insistence on Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories in return for Arab acceptance and security in accordance with 242. It should explicitly recognize the Palestinian right to have a homeland of their own in these territories.

The concept of putting a solution into effect over a period should be salvaged from Camp David. Security could be reinforced by agreed constraints. While Israeli settlement would end, present Israeli inhabitants could remain but would be subject to local law as Arabs are in Israel. The moderate Arabs, including the Palestinians, might well be ready for such a settlement.

Could the US influence or coerce Israel to comply with such a course?

The question is not whether the US has sufficient leverage over Israel. It is whether the US government could exert that leverage despite resistance by Israel and its US supporters.

As to leverage, consider the simple facts. For some years, the US has in effect been subsidizing Israel to the tune of about $1,000 per year for each man , woman, and child - in the form of economic aid, military assistance, cheap credits, and forgiven loans. The US is Israel's arsenal, and its repeated UN vetoes protect Israel from the almost unanimous condemnation and pressure of the international community.

Would the threat of cutting off this aid and support influence Israeli policy? Israel's supporters say it would only unite the country and make it more intransigent and irresponsible. Certainly Begin would try to exploit it that way. And he might succeed in the short run.

But many Israelis know that Begin's course will be catastrophic for their country; and more would have to assess soberly the lonely prospect of economic recession, growing Arab hostility, and no US shield.

Israel and its supporters faced this dilemma once. In 1957, after the Suez invasion, Israel continued to resist the UN directive to withdraw its forces, even after the various US reassurances. It was able to mobilize support in Congress and from a number of political figures. Finally President Eisenhower, his patience exhausted, explained in a television speech why the US would support UN pressure to coerce Israeli compliance. Before any vote, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion capitulated and withdrew.

Today Reagan could do the same in pursuit of US interests. Many voters, not usually concerned with the Middle East, have been appalled by the invasion of Lebanon. Thus a congressman may take some risk if he seems too ready to dance to Israel's tune. Moreover, like Eisenhower, the President could act despite Congress.

Might the Reagan administration follow such a course? The odds are low. In September 1980 Reagan declared his unqualified support for Israel in a speech to a Jewish group. Thus far a strongly pro-Israeli policy has prevailed (except on AWACS) despite Secretary Weinberger's efforts for a more balanced approach.

George Shultz, the secretary of state-designate, appears to be more even-handed, having questioned the policy of the 1980 Reagan speech at the time.

But Israeli supporters will no doubt try to discredit his views on the basis of Saudi contracts with the Bechtel construction company he has headed in recent years. In the end, the decisive factor will be whether the President understands how far Israeli interests as defined by Mr. Begin diverge from those of the US and acts accordingly.