The difficulties of reconciling Israel with its Arab neighbors and bringing a lasting peace to the Middle East were seldom more apparent than in Washington over the past week.
Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin was there wanting and needing for his own purposes almost the exact opposite of what President Carter, his host, wants and needs.
Mr. Carter wants and needs from Mr. Begin movement toward the liberation of the occupied Arabs after 13 years of life under Israel's soldiery. He needs it because it has been repeatedly promised to President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and to the whole Arab community, because it is contemplated in the Camp David agreements, because there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East without it, and because Mr. Carter will be in deepening disagreement with his essential West European allies until or unless he gets something from Israel in that direction.
One reason those allies have been slow and reluctant to join him in sanctions against Iran and in the boycott of the summer Olympic Games in Moscow is that he has so far failed to apply to Israel the pressure they believe he should and could apply in the general interest of the alliance.
They, the allies, made their point in an interesting way during the week. Mr. Begin arrived in Washington on Tuesday, April 16. On Wednesday morning the New York Times, which everyone in government in Washington reads, arrived with a prominent article by former British Prince Minister Edward Health that said:
". . . the absence of a solution to the Palestinian problem is alienating the whole Islamic world from the West. It is . . . forcing previously moderate leaders to adopt more radical positions on oil, security cooperation, and other issues of vital importance to us. . . . The West cannot therefore afford to dodge the key issues of Jerusalem and of Palestinian self-government on the West Bank and Gaza."
But Mr. Begin has already taken the position that all of Jerusalem, including the Arab eastern approaches and suburbs, are now part of Israel and under Israeli sovereignty and that the West Bank is "Judea and Samaria" and that, too, must come under Israeli sovereignty. Were he to budge from this position, he would presumably lose the support in his parliament of the radical Zionists, and his government would fall.
And Mr. Begin arrived in Washington strong in the results of the New York primary, where the Jewish wards voted 4 to 1 against Mr. Carter after Jewish community leaders had accused him of being insufficiently considerately of Israel.
Mr. Begin's opening move in Washington was to propose that continuing talks about possible "self-rule" for the occupied Arabs be held in the Middle East, not in Washington as President Sadat had agreed when he was in Washington the previous week. Such limited influence as Mr. Carter can exert on the talks would be less in the Middle East than in Washington.
Underneath this current problem of conflicting needs and wishes between Mr. Begin of Israel and Mr. Carter of the United States is an ambiguity built into the very foundations of Israel. The original document on which Israel rests was the Balfour Declaration of Nov. 2, 1917. There was a single paragraph statement made by Arthur James Balfour, then foreign minister of Great Britain to Lord Rothschild, honorary president of the Zionist Federation. It said:
"His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
Zionists proceeded from that document to build "a national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, which emerged after World War II in the form of a political state run by Jews for the benefit of Jews. The British government had not contemplated the "Jewish homeland" becoming a Jewish political state. London resisted that conversion until the last possible moment on the ground that it would "prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine."
Was it ever possible to have a Jewish political state in Palestine without prejudice to the civil rights of Arabs?
Whether theoretically possible, the actually has been otherwise. The issue today is whether the "rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine" shall be recognized in at least the occupied territories if not in the actual recognized territory of the existing state of Israel. In Israel Jewish "rights" take precedence over non-Jewish "rights." Arabs and other non-Jews are second-class citizens.
Begin policies would generalize throughout the occupied territories the privileged status that Jews enjoy in Israel. But such generalization cannot be accepted by President Sadat of Egypt, or by any Arab government.
More than that, it is no longer acceptable to Washington's allies in Western Europe and to Japan, which believe their interests to lie overwhelming in improved relations with the entire Islamic community. They regard Mr. Begin's policies as damaging to their purposes and their interests. Since Israel can exist only with US subsidies, they expect Mr.Carter to use this fact as a bargaining instrumental against Mr. begin.
But every time an American president attempts to bargain with any part of the annual US subsidy to Israel, he is punished by the threat or fact of the withholding of Jewish votes. Presidents Nixon and Ford both tried it, and changed their minds promptly.
The inability of any American president to influence Israel has by now become a serious burden on the Western alliance system. Japan and the European allies are deeply concerned about their relations with the Islamic countries, particularly now that Moscow is believed to be facing the need to turn to the Persian Gulf to supplement its own supplies of oil. They wish to protect their access to that oil both by requiring Israel to liberate the occupied Arabs and by being as gentle as possible with Iran.
Mr. Carter is caught in the middle of all this. He wants the allies to join him in sanctions against both Iran and the Soviet Union, but is politically incapable of giving them what they want -- sufficient US pressure on Israel to require the liberation of those occupied Arabs from Israel control. One can't help wondering why Mr. Carter wants to be re-elected.