The changing face of the West Bank: where does it go from here?

Libya makes grabbier headlines. Saudi Arabia has oil. Egypt is 50 times more populous. Lebanon is 50,000 times more violent.

But it is among the post-card-pretty olive groves, the vineyards, scrubland, rocks, and desert of the West Bank of the trickly Jordan River that hopes for Arab-Israeli peace in our generation are most likely to succeed or evaporate.

The second possibility seems more likely every day.

Tiny, politically confused, nicer to look at than to farm, the occupied West Bank is the last remaining slice of Palestine where the problem of the Palestinians -- the centerpiece of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- might conceivably, gradually be resolved.

The Arabs want to root a Palestinian state there. The Israelis want to keep control for themselves, and grant local Palestinians limited autonomy. This gap in positions is neither new nor particularly surprising.

What is new is that Israel is drawing visibly closer to its forthrightly stated goal of making its control of the disputed territory a physical fact of life, of foreclosing on the ground other negotiated options.

If you had driven around the West Bank barely a year ago, you would have found lots of Jewish settlements -- dozens more than when Menachem Begin's government came to power in 1977. But beyond the sprawling apartment developments around Jerusalem, many of the outposts remained slapdash affairs, clusters of prefab concrete for no more than a few dozen families. In many, water had to be trucked in. Electricity came from local generators. The settlements looked as if (at least in theory) they could be uprooted or somehow finessed as part of an eventual, if distant, peace.

But the picture is changing. There are more settlements, and, if some remain thinly populated, they are still gradually animating Israeli planners' vision of settlement ''blocks'' to cement control of the territory.

More important, a growing number of the Jewish outposts are beginning to look a lot more like fledgling towns than settlements. Real homes are going up. Electricity links with Israel are being established. Water tanks are being replaced by pipes. New roads are making the West Bank, less than 50 miles across at its widest point, seem even smaller -- bringing more settlements within realistic commuting distance of pre-1967 Israel.

The idea is to lure many more Israelis to put down permanent roots in ''Judea and Samaria,'' and the strategy is visibly beginning to work. The Israelis are accomplishing this without subterfuge -- with a little help from their friends . . . and enemies.

Some Reagan administration officials have publicly softened the Carter administration contention that West Bank settlement is illegal. Gone, too, is the former administration's ritualistic criticism of almost each new Jewish outpost.

The Arabs, in tradition, have been busy screaming at the Israelis, the Americans, and at one another, in about equal measure.

The recent Arab summit in Fez, Morocco, unexpectedly short and not at all sweet, cannot have helped but make more than a few Israeli officials smile. Saudi Arabia tried unsuccessfully to push its alternative ''peace plan,'' which would among other things bring the United States and Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) into some kind of formal dialogue.

Meanwhile, Americans, Arabs, and others (like the West Europeans), suggest variously that the key to progress on the Palestinian issue lies in widening, refashioning, or scrapping the 1978 Camp David framework on ''autonomy'' for the territory.

Yet all this is background noise for what is happening, and will undoubtedly continue to happen, on the ground of the West Bank.

The one prospect, however unlikely, for harnessing the Begin government's drive to cement its hold on the territory remains some form of pressure from the Americans, Israel's multibillion-dollar aid patrons.

And the one realistic forum for such action, at least for now, remains the Camp David autonomy accord -- unchanged, unwidened, unscrapped.

To speak of US ''pressure'' on the Israelis is not to assess blame in the Mideast conflict -- that is the task of priests, pundits, and politicians -- but merely to suggest that, practically, the alternative is to watch already precarious chances for an early Mideast detente disappear altogether under Israel's West Bank alterations.

If the Saudi peace plan is really intended as a peace plan, as opposed to an opening negotiating position, it is useless in this regard. This is true no matter which Arabs do or don't choose to sign on with Riyadh. It would have been true no matter what might have come out of the Fez summit. Israel's government is not about to sign a charter for a Palestinian state, and even many Israelis who don't like Mr. Begin will back him in this.If the Saudis, in the other hand, intend their proposal as a basis for genuine negotiation, then they will have to find some Arabs to negotiate on it. This is an unlikely prospect, and seems even more unlikely following the Saudis' failure in Fez.

Throughout the decades-long conflict with Israel, Arab leaders have always proven unwilling or politically unable to accept the concept of negotiation as a process of give and take, and this has not visibly changed.

One US official recalls the response of Jordan's King Hussein to US efforts to sell him on Camp David: ''We kept telling him of what we saw as the advantages of the political process that would be created on the West Bank, . . . but he kept asking, 'Where are the guarantees of what the situation will look like at the end?' ''

As for a US dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), this could be a nice thing for US standing in an increasingly resentful Arab world. But as a means of winning Israeli concessions on the West Bank, it would likely backfire.

Yasser Arafat would presumably be telling Ronald Reagan to get him a Palestinian state. Israel would be telling Mr. Reagan to stop talking to ''terrorists'' (let Arafat do what Sadat did if he really recognizes us, the Israelis would likely add) and would meanwhile scamper to plant a few more West Bank settlements, plow a few more roads, hook up a few more electricity and water links.

The fact is: Be it ever so humble, there is no negotiating framework like Camp David.

It may finally fail, partly because the Arabs (including Egypt's President Mubarak) don't fundamentally accept the idea that a West Bank resolution can come gradually, as part of an ongoing political process, rather than be delivered already signed and sealed.

But the one realistic ''peace'' option for the Americans seems to be to convince these Arabs, finally, that Camp David is quite simply the only game in town; such persuasion is - and has been until now - impossible unless the US can press Israel to stop unilaterally making the open-ended process that Camp David envisaged a distinctly closed one.

The advantages of Camp David over any alternative suggested so far bear repeating:

* The agreement exists, with Israel's signature at the bottom.

* It delineates the West Bank (and the also occupied Gaza Strip) as a single territorial entity, the first time Israel has signed such a document.

* It provides for free elections in the area. (If the PLO doesn't, as seems likely, scare already reluctant West Bankers out of running, the balloting could produce a pro-PLO group automatically recognized by the US.)

* And its blueprint for Palestinian ''autonomy'' is specifically transitional , foreseeing possible compromise on the ''final status'' of the disputed territory.

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