Middle East: next, and hardest, step

Egypt and Israel have exchanged ambassadors. The border between their two countries is open. Trade and tourists are beginning to move across those borders. Air service has just begun. It sounds almost like the millennium.

In one sense it is. Egypt is the only neighbor of Israel big enough and populous enough to be able to wage war seriously against the state of Israel. Now that peace exists between Egypt and Israel and has been formalized by exchange of ambassadors and is being woven into an actuality by the strands of trade and travel, Israel's survival is no longer in serious question. Without Egypt the other Arab neighbors cannot wage war rationally or to any measurable advantage against Israel.

Yet while rational war is not possible between Israel and its Arab neighbors from now on, peace is not possible either until or unless Israel takes one more step so small and yet so very large that it may be harder for Israel than the steps already taken.

In terms of territory Israel has already agreed to give up the whole of the Sinai peninsula, and in fact has turned over a large share of it to the Egyptians. This far exceeds in numbers of acres the land of the West Bank and Gaza strip. In one respect, oil, what has already been given up, is worth more than what is still being held back. There is no oil so far as we yet know in what Israel calls "Judea and Samaria."

But "Judea and Samaria" and Gaza are ihabited by Arabs who are living under an Israeli military occupation. There are some Jewish settlers living in the West Bank under the protection of Israeli troops and Israeli police. But primarily it is Arab country inhabited by Arabs.

Under the terms of President Carter's Camp David agreements Israel is required to give the Arabs of West Bank and Gaza the rights of political "autonomy." Camp David did not spell out the meaning of "autonomy," but did call for agreement by May of this year. In other words during the next months Washington hopes, and requests, that Egypt and Israel work out the details under which the peace which covers Israel's southern border with Egypt may be extended to east and north so that Israel will be at peace with all of its Arab neighbors.

There is only one obstacle to that peace. Who is to control the use of the land and the water of West Bank and Gaza?

Israel is ready and willing to let the Arabs run their own schools and pretty much manage their own local affairs, but expects to retain control of "public land" and distribution of water. The Arabs insist that unless they police themselves, under their own laws, and in their own courts, and control the use of "public lands" and the distribution of water, they will continue to live at the mercy of the Israelis and be in danger of being forced ultimately out of their own lands.

Are the Arabs to live in the equivalent of the American Indian "reservation" which can be invaded and contracted at the convenience of the Israelis as American Indian reservations so often were in the past? Or is there to be a genuine end to the Israeli occupation of Arab territory as required under terms of UN Resolution 242?

The Arabs believe with much historic reason that if the Israelis retain control over land and water the Arabs will be squeezed gradually but relentlessly out of the West Bank and Gaza just as they already have been pushed out of the bulk of what once was Palestine. All it takes is the loss of water to dry up the ancestral olive groves, the vineyards, and the vegetable patches on which many of the Arabs live. And all it takes is a new Israeli settlement on the top of every barren hill to convert what is now an Arab land into a network of Israeli citadels with a few miserable Arabs huddled outside the walls as in some medieval town.

There can be no broad and general and lasting peace for Israel on Israel's present terms for "autonomy." But there can be no more Jewish settlements in "Judea and Samaria" under Arab terms. Are West Bank and Gaza to be Arab, our ultimately part of Israel? Are Israel's frontiers to be fixed or indefinitely expandable? Will Israel accept a partition of ancient Palestine and live at peace with the Arabs in the other part? Or will Israel go on in an endless state of hostility with its Arab neighbors, until it either settles and holds all of Palestine, or is itself wiped out in some vast Arab convulsion which overwhelms Israel as it once overwhelmed the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem?

Now is the time in fact approaching for Israel to choose: Will it live at peace with its Arab neighbors in a divided Palestine, or will it insist on trying to have all of it? It is a big question for israel to decide -- in just a couple of months.

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