Yesterday tourists from Israel and Egypt began crossing the boarder between the two countries that was opened for the first time since the founding of Israel three decades ago. Yesterday Palestinian residents of the Israeli-occupied West Bank went to court for an injunction against expansion of the Jewish settlement there. The separate episodes dramatize the promise and the problem of resolving basic Arab-Israeli conflict. And this conflict is a central obstacle to that regional cooperation with the West which is needed to resist Soviet encroachment and guarantee free-world access to Mideast oil.
The world can cheer another milestone on the road to Egypt-Israel peace with the restoration to Egypt of the largest part of the Sinai so far. The opening of the border was an evidence of that "normalization" of relations which will continue with the exchange of ambassadors and other steps. The efforts by all concerned should not be minimized.
Yet the talks toward Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza have not shown sufficient progress to raise Palestinian hopes. Israel continues the expansion of Jewish settlements contrary to the freeze expected by President Carter to last while an autonomy agreement is being sought.
It is no surprise that the Palestinian issue has been added to the agenda of the emergency meeting of the Islamic Conference Organization, which was originally called to discuss only the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan. Delegates from some 40 nations (totaling 800 million people) are gathered in Islamabad, Pakistan. Many voices there have been stoutly raised against the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. But the Palestinian plight under the Israelis rankles. It must be remembered that Egypt was expeeled from the Islamic organization for making peace with Israel.
President Carter's State of the Union speech called for regional support in drawing a line against the Soviets in the Gulf oil region. It would have been preferable to be able to cite such support already in hand. Indeed, it would have been preferable for the United States to be in a clear position of being askedm for help by those on the spot. Instead, the speech brought some early reactions to the effect that the Gulf nations could take care of themselves, thank you. Unrealistic as this may be in the event of Soviet onslaught, still local feelings must be considered. The Climate must be prepared to willingly receive a US military presence, for example, wherever such a presence could be justified for maintaining peace and stability.
Crucial to creating such a climate even in the more moderate Muslim lands is a conviction that the US is really doing all it can to further the cause of justice to the Palestinians. The challenge was presented yesterday in no uncertain terms by former Under Secretary of State George Ball, who more recently was President Carter's special adviser on Iran. He wrote:
"We cannot realistically expect those [oil- producing] Arab nations to risk close identification with us by giving us bases on their soil or cooperating in military planning while we continue to subsidize Israeli colonialism on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and condone by inaction the Begin government's cynical effort to absorb those areas. Let there be no mistake about it: So long as we delay a frontal attack on the Palestinian issue, we are alienating the whole Moslem world, as our shattered embassies have demonstrated."
The warning is worth pondering by Mr. Carter as he -- and we -- welcome the brighter news from Egypt and Israel, too.