Middle East: prelude to a Haig tour

Several years have passed since President Sadat informed an American secretary of state that he had been assured by Yasser Arafat that the PLO covenant would be changed. The Egyptian leader said that he had decided that the Palestinians should declare publicly that Israel had a right to exist.

That was the first trip which the secretary had made to the Middle East. He felt exhilarated by the news. He discussed Sadat's information with a group of US foreign service officers -- ambassadors all -- whose service in that region reached a combined total of almost 200 years. He asked for their opinion, but was not pleased (as he had already passed the good tidings to the President) when they expressed doubt about the likelihood of such a change coming about in the foreseeable future. There must be negotiations between Israel, the PLO, Jordan, and Syria first, and tangible progress on territorial matters, the ambassadors said. Their assessment was correct.

After it became evident that Sadat overestimated his ability to influence the PLO, the administration endeavored by various means to induce "friendly" Arab states to cease their support for Arafat and his organization. The many exchanges between US ambassadors and Arab rulers were to no avail.

During the same period Arafat and the PLO were proclaimed by the Arab/Islamic world to be the true representatives of the Palestinians. Arafat was then (and is still) received as a chief of state in every Islamic capital. In Riyadh, for example, he stayed with the highest-ranking members of the royal household which , through Prince Fahd, was engaged in an effort to counter Marxist influence in the PLO and among Palestinians throughout the Middle East.

Washington had badly miscalculated Sadat's influence. The Egyptian leader reacted by deciding to visit Jerusalem and by inviting Begin to visit Egypt.

Most Arab governments denounced Sadat's move, but in Washington it stimulated hope that Israel and Egypt together could bring about a solution. Subsequent exchanges between Begin and Sadat, however, made it clear that they could reach no agreement and their talks reached an impasse. The US President then decided to visit the Middle East to "restore momentum," and the seeds of the Camp David concept were planted.

After two weeks of palaver, President Carter, Mr. Sadat, and Prime Minister Begin produced, under considerable media pressure, a "treaty," several "annexes, " some "agreed minutes," and a letter to the US President from Sadat and Begin. It was not the most precise diplomatic drafting ever presented to a waiting world, but it did contain three essential elements: it was agreed that Israel and Egypt would enter into diplomatic relations; that Israel would return the Sinai to Egypt (in stages); and that Israelis and Egyptians would "negotiate" to "establish an elected self-governing authority" on the West Bank. While the first two of these provisions could be deemed practical, the third and most important was clearly a product of fantasy.

It is worth noting at this point that, before Mr. Begin signed the documents, he inserted immediately following the phrase "self-governing authority" the parenthetical phrase "administrative council." He insisted, in termagant style, that this be done, and the American delegation consoled themselves by noting that, after all, "the spirit is more important than the text." As for Mr. Sadat, he was too deeply committed to turn back.

Another consideration weighed heavily in bringing about the signatures of the Israeli and Egyptian leaders: to reinforce their good will and help implement their peace efforts they received between them a special US donation of $4.8 billion in addition to the "regular" US annual aid allotments.

All the hyperbole which accompanied the presentation of "a great diplomatic achievement" unfortunately did not placate the Arab world. Sadat was ostracized and remains in that condition. Israel continued its policy of placing more settlements in the West Bank, and announced the annexation of Arab Jerusalem. Negotiators by the dozen, whose qualifications were not apparent, were dispatched to breathe life into the corpse. The failure of US policy could not have been clearer. The Arab world used an old saying to describe the situation: "The mountain groaned and gave birth to a mouse!" and many Europeans agreed.

Secretary of State Haig, facing the most intractable international problem, has made a wise decision. Before subjecting himself to a barrage of Israeli-Egyptian rhetoric, he has decided to proceed to the Middle East. Later, after the Israeli election, the President and he will hear Messrs. Begin and Sadat in Washington. By then the secretary will be posing questions to them and weighing their answers against the background of US priorities. This should be another Reagan innovation and the betting i s that the people will like it.

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