Menachem Begin's visit to the United States loses some of its meaning in the wake of Ronald Reagan's electoral victory. Even if President Carter and the Israeli Prime Minister go ahead with plans for a summit meeting later this year -- and that seems more and more in doubt -- such a summit would be more symbolic than substantive. The outgoing US administration is not in a position to push new initiatives for a Mideast peace. These must await the new chapter which begins with the inauguration of President-elect Reagan.
It is not too soon, however, for Mr. Reagan to be doing his homework on one of the toughest foreign policy problems awaiting him. His stance during the election campaign seems to suggest unqualified support of Israel. There can be no quarrel with such deep sympathy for a nation struggling to preserve its existence. But it will be surprising if the strategic realities of the Middle East do not begin to moderate Mr. Reagan's views just as they have the outlook of previous presidents. In any case, he does not need to be locked into an ideological position, for he emerged from the election with a solid popular mandate and is not beholden to the pro-Israel vote.
The President-elect will also have flexibility for diplomatic reasons. The Camp David process does not appear to be going anywhere. It achieved one significant breakthrough -- the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. But resolution of the far more difficult Palestinian question will require new alternatives, perhaps a whole new approach and negotiating framework. Mr. Reagan, starting with a clean slate, perhaps will more easily be able to steer in another direction. If the Labor Party comes to power in Israel next year, this too would add a new dimension to the possibilities for a peace settlement. It is significant, for instance, that Labor Party leaders are calling for a single Jordanian-Palestinian state that might be headed by a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization -- a plan that has aroused a political furor but nonetheless points along with public opinion polls to ferment in Israel thinking.
Mr. Reagan will face some tough decisions early in office even if there are no pressures for a quick resumption of negotiations. Saudi Arabia, for example, is likely to put him to an early test on the matter of US arms sales. The President-elect has not looked kindly on the Saudi position, but if he intends to build up the US military presence in the Gulf region it is hard to see how he can do this without paying a price in arms supply, without in general cultivating the support of the Saudis, Jordan, and other Arab states. Israelis, for their part, would not be happy about a buildup of sophisticated US weapons in Saudi Arabia (nor, it might be added, would we -- albeit not for the same reasons). Like any president, therefore, Mr. Reagan will face some agonizing trade-offs.
He may also have to deal quickly with Israeli policies that continue to frustrate the peace process. The immediate danger is that, during the diplomatic lull, Israel may see an opportunity -- even before January -- to rush through measures that will add still more roadblocks to progress. There is ominous talk now about annexing the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in the 1967 war. More than half the members of the Knesset last year signed a petition favoring annexation of the some 500 square miles and now are seeking to push through a law. The Knesset already has adopted a law allowing Druses living on the Heights to become Israeli citizens, a move viewed by the Golan lobby as a prelude to annexation legislation.
This piece of territory has no significant biblical connotations for Israel. Former Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan was even prepared to give up the Golan settlements in return for a peace treaty with Syria. Prime Minister Begin sat down hard on that suggestion, however, vowing Israel would never return the Heights. Israeli settlement of the economically productive area has continued and today there are 27 communities with 6,000 Israelis there.
With their commanding vantage point, the Golan Heights will probably have to be demilitarized in order to put Syrian guns beyond the range of Israel's borders. But this is something to be worked out in a peace negotiation. It hardly needs pointing out that a unilateral Israeli move to annex the area would undermine the chances for a peace treaty with Damascus. Unfortunately, both Mr. Reagan and Labor Party leaders have been reluctant to oppose annexation openly for fear of losing votes in the coming election -- just as they failed to oppose the "Jerusalem law" affirming Israeli sovereingty over all of Jerusalem, including the eastern part seized in 1967.
Israel's long-term interests can only be served by refraining from further such provocative steps. But, with American eyes currently focused on the Iran-Iraq war, the US hostages, and the changing of the guard at the White House , Israeli politicians may find it tempting to try to push through the Golan legislation. We trust this does not happen. It is up to the United States -- and the international community -- to bring this emerging issue to public notice. It is up t Ronald Reagan to continue educating himself to what is happening -- for he will soon have to deal with it.