An American visiting Jordan and Israel last week could not but be exposed in both to the eruption of indignation, almost of contempt, which followed the curious performance of our goverment in regard to the vote at the UN on Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
Whether this astonishing American about-face was occasioned by "a failure of communications," as the administration claimed, but few in the Middle East believed, or whether it reflected the familiar pressures of American domestic politics, it was widely felt to display a vacilation and weakness unworthy of a great power, which moreover, far from appeasing either Israelis or Arabs, angered them both almost equally.
The Israelis were furious at US support of a resolution, which, whether or not it mentioned Jerusalem, demanded not only cessation of further settlements in the occupied West Bank, but also the dismantling of those already established. The resolution's apparent assimilation of East Jerusalem to the rest of the occupied territory merely compounded the grievance. Belated US disassociation from this aspect of the resolution fell far short of satisfying Mr. Begin and his colleagues, particularly since they are perfectly aware that longstanding US policy firmly opposes their absorptions of East Jerusalem.
An American visiting the West Bank last week for the first time in nearly five years could not but be struck not only by the clusters of high-rise apartments springing up farther and farther from the peripheries of old Jerusalem, but even more by the uninterrupted series of thriving Israeli agricultural settlements in the Jordan valley. The physiognomy of "Palestine" is changing dramatically from year to year, as the displacement of neglected Arabs by favored Israelis inexorably proceeds.
One wonders at what point Israeli settlements will have passed the point of no return and "withdrawal from occupied territories," prescribed by UN Resolution 242 twelve and a half years ago, will have become so politically excruciating for Israelis that it will be openly repudiated. If and when that point should be reached, the prospects both for successful peacemaking and for Israel's long-term security would become dim indeed.
As for the present, there remains a sharp division of opinion on the subject between Begin's Likud, which believes Israelis have a right to settle anywhere in "eretz Israel" and would not be shocked at the thought of eventual annexation , and the Labor Party, which supports settlements in the Jordan valley as supposedly contributing to "security" but contemplates returning the rest of the West Bank, certainly not to the PLO, but to some Jordanian-Palestinian authority. Neither party would tolerate giving up East Jerusalem, though how far out the burgeoning city will be encouraged to sprawl is not clear.
As to the Arabs, for a few hours at the beginning of this month American prestige among them soared to new heights as it appeared that the US was at last joining the rest of the world community in condemning unequivocally what seems to all Arabs a creeping annexation of Arab lands. The political benefits accruing from this action were, however, at once washed away by the wave of indignation which followed what to Arabs appeared an abject American capitulation to Israeli pressure. The fact that US condemnation of Israeli settlements is, at least in principle, unaffected by this turnabout is for the moment forgotten.
These Arab perceptions, whether or not justified, cannot but have very grave effects on American interests and policies in a part of the world to which the US rightly attaches such critical importance.
Moderate Arab friends of the United States have again been dismayed and discredited, and their voices will be weakened in Arab councils. Already waning confidence in US and Egyptian ability to produce meaningful results from the Camp David agreement on Palestinian "autonomy" will be further diminished. The Saudi inclination to supply us with the amount of oil we want will be further eroded.
Even more troubling may be the effect on America's ability to rally Arab opposition to Soviet encroachment in the area. Why should we respond, asked a senior Jordanian official, to your exhortations to react to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan a thousand miles away, when aggression is daily being committed against us, with your support, at our very doorstep?
The US has recently embarked on the expenditure of billions of dollars to create a "rapid deployment force" to defend the Persian Gulf area and safeguard Western oil supplies. Such a force will be of little use, however, if the moderate Arab states of the region refuse to call upon it in time of need because association with the US is becoming a political liability rather than an asset.
We see our French and British allies beginning ostentatiouslyy to disassociate themselves from our Middle Eastern policies. It could be that they have perceived something we have not. PErhaps, since they are less encumbered than we are with relevant domestic problems, we would be wise to leave them more of the responsibility for reinforcing Western security in a region where everything we do is ambivalent and often, as in the latest episode, self-defeating.
It has been said that the United States, in contrast to the Soviet Union, is the most acceptable peacemaker for the region because we alone have the confidence of both sides. But what if we should, by drifting helpelessly back and forth from one to the other, lose the confidence of both?