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Arab summitry, US interests, and arms sales

By Bill Taylor / December 23, 1987

THE recent Arab League summit in Jordan produced some unexpected results that support United States interests in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Syria surprised almost everyone by endorsing a unanimous resolution that condemns Iran for refusing to comply with the United Nations bid for a cease-fire, for aggression in the Persian Gulf, and for its role in the massacre of innocent pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

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The Arab leaders agreed that states should feel free to reestablish ties with Egypt broken after Cairo signed its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Middle East states moved rapidly to do so, with an eye on Egypt's US-supported military capability to assist in defending against Iranian aggression.

Small wonder that Tehran criticized the moderate Arabs for being too cozy with the US and for implicitly accepting the Camp David accords. The results of the summit could hardly have been better if the US State Department had written the scenario.

American policy toward the region is now at a critical juncture. Momentum stems from common Arab concern about Islamic fundamentalism and a growing sense of pragmatism with respect to Israel; the motion could be lost or reversed over the issue of US weapons sales to Arab states.

The US and its allies in Europe and East Asia share vital interests in the area. These include regional balance and stability, security of Gulf energy resources, and free transit through international waters. The US has a particular, additional interest in the security of Israel.

The debates in Washington over US policies and programs to pursue those interests are old and recurrent. But the persistent argument over weapons sales to Arab states boils down to one fundamental issue: the security of Israel. The concern is that increasingly sophisticated Arab weaponry could alter the traditional assumption that Israel can militarily defeat any combination of Arab forces likely to be arrayed against it.

But the era has passed that saw the 1967 and 1973 Arab attacks against Israel and the June 1982 Israeli attack into Lebanon. Despite its current political turmoil, Israel is now a more stable force in the region's political-military balance and a deterrent to any would-be aggressors.

The reasons are many. Israel's military capability, fueled by enormous amounts of US aid, continues to improve compared with that of its Arab neighbors. Also, those neighbors face numerous foreign and domestic problems.

Given its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and enormous economic and political problems, Egypt is neither prepared for, nor disposed to, attacking Israel. Jordan's preoccupation with the plight of the Palestinians, its priority need for economic development, and lack of offensive capability ensure that the Hashemite Kingdom will pose no military threat to Israel. The solidarity of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the threats it may pose remain uncertain. An economy in shambles and the moderation of its relationship with Moscow leave Syria without the military assurance it needs to support any possible aggression against Israel.