The Carter blunder on Israel

It is hard to escape the conclusion that President Carter's public turnabout on the US vote in the United Nations which rebuked Israel's settlement policy is anything but an abject capitulation to ethnic pressures in a politically sensitive year. It seems likely to be a serious blunder abroad and perhaps at home. The Arabs are certain to be incensed by the reversal. Nor is it certain that even Israel will have been mollified by Mr. Carter's effort to soften US displeasure with its policies. The better and statesmanlike course would have been for the President to stick by his original UN position, whatever the consequences.

The full facts of the case are not clear at this writing, but the appearances are no less important and these are damaging. They not only invite charges of political gamesmanship. They convey an image of an administration again dogged by inconsistency and confusion in foreign policy. Mr. Carter now says the US should have abstained on the UN vote, as it did in two previous votes, but that an error was made in transmitting to UN Ambassador Donald McHenry instructions involving references to Jerusalem. How could the administration make a mistake on such an overridingly important diplomatic issue? At the least, it comes out looking incompetent. The Republicans, not to mention Senator Kennedy, will have a field day.

That concerns us less than the substance of US policy, however. The President does not go back on the basic American position of regarding Israeli settlements in occupied Arab land as "illegal under internatioal law." But the US apparently opposes the UN call for a dismantling of those settlements, especially if these include the communities built in East Jerusalem. Does this represent a shift in US policy on Jerusalem? This question, among others, will need clarifying.

The United States has said ever since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that East Jerusalem is occupied Arab territory. The US has a consular office there to back up this position. And in the current Israeli-Egyptian talks for autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza the US has sided with the Egyptian position that the Arabs in East Jerusalem should vote for the future autonomous councils in the West Bank. Mr. Carter's language this week is that Jerusalem should be "undivided with free access to the holy places for all faiths" and that it status should be decided in the negotiations for an overall peace settlement. This seems to leave ambiguous the question of whether East Jerusalem is still regarded as Arab territory.

We are disappointed in the President's handling of the matter. We applauded the US action in the Security Council, believing it represented an act of political courage which would help convince the Palestinians and Arab nations of US sincerity and good faith and further the cause of a Middle East peace. To call, as the UN resolution does, for the dismantling of Israeli settlements deemed to be unlawful to begin with strikes us as a reasonable and consistent position. Mr. McHenry had already let it be known that, in practical terms, it would be unrealistic to expect such a dismantling. But at least the moral principle was upheld.

Whether a US administrative snafu or a political retreat -- or both -- this is an unfortunate turn of events in the crucial efforts to eliminate a difficult problem from the arena of Middle East politics.

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