Needed: an atmosphere for Middle East peace

Henry Kissinger has said that United States Middle East policy should be one of rewarding the moderates and punishing the extremists. Agreed. Unfortunately, ever since the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978, US policy far too often has reflected a different approach. While paying lip service to encouraging moderation, America has helped to bring out rejectionism and extremism.

Three basic assumptions have characterized this policy: that the US depends on Saudi Arabia and therefore it must do all it can to satisfy Saudi demands; that the Palestinian issue is the core of Middle East problems; that the process of peacemaking involves US pressure on Israel to make concessions to lure the Arabs to peace.

Because these assumptions ignore history and reality, they have produced the very opposite results from those intended. An appeased Saudi Arabia makes no serious meaningful moves to peace; would-be moderates among the Palestinians have no incentive to step forward if the onus for peace is directed elsewhere; Egyptians wonder about the US commitment to a true policy of moderation, hence they wonder about their own policies; and Israel finds itself anxious about the painfully wrought peace with Egypt and understandably feels increasingly beleaguered.

We therefore see a Middle East today where new and different approaches -- more accurately reflecting Kissinger's dictum -- are required to sustain Egyptian-Israeli peace and to generate expansion of the Camp David process. In a word, America must create a new environment for peace.

Several specifics come to mind. With regard to Egypt and Israel, a crucial stage is fast approaching: Israel's withdrawal from the last part of the Sinai in April 1982. Because of the assassination of Anwar Sadat and US flirtation with the Saudi ''peace'' plan, many in Israel are questioning the wisdom of the withdrawal. Meanwhile, many Egyptians as well wonder where American policy will stand after April.

It therefore becomes imperative for the Reagan administration to take two important steps:

* First, it must state unequivocally that it is committed to Camp David and Camp David alone, not only before April 1982 but for the foreseeable future as well. Ideally, such a commitment should take the form of an agreement with Egypt and Israel, thus encouraging both to move ahead in the process with certainty about the US role, and making clear to others that all attempts to destroy Camp David, whether in the form of the Saudi plan or any other, have no hope of gaining US acceptance.

* Secondly, the administration must reassure Egypt of America's continuing military, economic, and diplomatic aid - predicated, however, on Egypt's continuing peace and normalization with Israel post-April 1982. Sadat realized in 1977 that the road to Washington lay through Jerusalem, that full US assistance so vital to the well-being of his country could not be obtained without peace. Similarly, his successor, President Mubarak, must be able to plan his future course with the knowledge that US aid will continue, but that the sine qua non post-April 1982, as it was in November 1977, is peace with Israel. The US will thus be playing its central role of solidifying the tripartite relationship.

It is not enough, however, for the administration to sustain one part of peace. It also must help create an atmosphere conducive to expanding Camp David. To date, Saudi Arabia, the key to the stalemate, has had little incentive to support Camp David because of American policy. Why should Prince Fahd risk the wrath of the radicals in the Arab world when the Saudis get all they want from the US without supporting Camp David?

Only when the administration reassesses its relationship with Saudi Arabia, moving toward a more realistic one reflecting heavy Saudi dependence on US military and economic might, will the Saudis have to make the kinds of decisions Sadat once made. Only when the Saudis conclude that they must earn American support is it possible that they will opt for peace and open negotiations with Israel.

Finally, it is only when the Saudis and others come forward as Sadat did -- i.e., unequivocally for peace and open negotiations (the Fahd plan offers neither) -- that Israel can make hard decisions concerning the future of the West Bank and Gaza. In a hostile international and regional environment, as is the current one, Israeli anxiety flourishes (witness the application of Israeli civilian law to the Golan Heights); but let an Arab come forward with open arms, and Israel's generosity and yearning for peace will take over.

America therefore holds the key to the maintenance and expansion of Arab-Israeli peace.

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