Countering the Begin strategy
Like the bombing of the Iraqi reactor and of Beirut, the annexation of the Golan Heights and the vitriolic diatribe against President Reagan have shown once again that Prime Minister Begin is headstrong and arrogant.
But the Golan takeover signifies much more than that. Since 1967, the basic guideline for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict has been United Nations Resolution 242. In essence, it calls for the surrender by Israel of occupied territories in exchange for Arab acceptance of Israel. That was the only hope for secure peace in 1967. The rise of Palestinian nationalism has made that even truer today. Earlier Israeli leaders endorsed this equation. Indeed in the Camp David accords, Mr. Begin himself undertook to carry out all the provisions and principles of the resolution.
In fact, however, Mr. Begin rejects the formula of Resolution 242. He has explicitly asserted that Israel and the West Bank ''will never be divided again'' and that ''no part of (this) territory will be handed over to a foreign rule or sovereignty.'' Accordingly, he is pursuing a calculated strategy to absorb the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the Golan Heights. In the Camp David accords, his aim was to neutralize Egypt by the peace treaty and thereby weaken the Arab military capacity. His promise to grant ''full autonomy'' for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and to settle their future status in five years with their participation was of course dependent on his subsequent agreement.
In practice, Mr. Begin has conducted the autonomy talks in line with his strategy. He has offered only administrative agencies with very little authority. While these talks have ground on, he has expanded Israeli settlements in the occupied areas, contrary to what President Carter understood to be a commitment to suspend such action. Thus the delay and five-year ''transition'' would allow Israel to create a ''fait accompli'' as a prelude to annexing the West Bank and Gaza.
To make this strategy effective, Mr. Begin seeks to head off or stifle any initiative which would return to the basic concept of Resolution 242 of trading occupied territory for Arab acceptance of Israel:
* He has adamantly rejected the Europeans' initiative because they have insisted on the need to recognize the Palestinian right of self-determination.
* Similarly, he has denounced the Saudi ''peace plan,'' which essentially restated the Arab interpretation of Resolution 242, as an effort to liquidate Israel. His foreign minister followed up with a vicious attack on the Saudi regime.
* He has annexed the Golan Heights, which can only serve to convince Syria of the futility of negotiation and block any progress toward a negotiated solution.
* The bombing of the Iraqi reactor and of Beirut also were calculated to create frictions between the Arabs and the United States.
Moreover, to still criticism of Israeli policy and action, Mr. Begin and his supporters have sought to brand such criticism as ''anti-Semitism'' and have repeatedly invoked the Holocaust in the effort to silence opponents or to justify his actions. (That ghastly experience, which reinforces the Zionist drive for Israel, seems a strange ground for suppressing Palestinian aspirations and activities for a homeland.)
These are not the measures of a leader or a state that is really seeking peace and reconciliation with its neighbors. Such truculence may be popular with part of the Israeli electorate, especially since the earlier weak US response has made it seem costless. But Mr. Begin's course is not in the true interests of Israel and certainly threatens the US interest in stability in the region.
A stable peace, as sincere supporters of Israel like Philip Klutznik have recognized, will have to be based on Resolution 242 and accept the likely prospect of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. A recent survey (done by the Seven Springs Center) concluded that conditions in the Arab world including growing Arab willingness to accept the Israeli state ''have created the best possibility of an Arab-Palestinian-Israeli negotiation since Israel was established.'' Most experts would concur. But that chance can be lost if Israel's actions convince the moderate Arabs that it is set on absorbing the occupied areas.
That would be disastrous. Israel cannot dominate this region indefinitely even if it continues to receive the enormous economic and military support which it has had from the US. But in fact the solid support for its security which Israel now enjoys for historic and other reasons will be steadily eroded if its intransigence is seen as undermining other major US interests in the Middle East. Thus the expansionist course of Mr. Begin threatens to reignite Arab hostility and to undercut US support. That is hardly a formula for security.
Mr. Reagan has properly joined in repudiating the annexation and has imposed some costs on Mr. Begin. But reaction is not enough. The President must adopt an active strategy of his own, going beyond Camp David, to achieve a negotiated settlement based on Resolution 242 and recognizing the rights of the Palestinians. He must not only oppose Mr. Begin's course but also must assist Israel to confront its hard choices before it is too late. And he must work with the Arabs, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, to be forthcoming on the assurance of reliable US backing for serious negotiation.