Arabs -- divided -- can do little to halt Israel's West Bank crackdown
Syria and Jordan are leading the Arab diplomatic drive against Israel's attempt to radically restructure the political leadership of the West Bank.
But beyond measures of moral support, the Arab world appears too divided at present to have much effect on Israel's present hard-line course.
That course, according to the military government's civil administrator, Menachem Milson, is to create a West Bank Palestinian leadership ''willing to negotiate with Israel.''
Both Syria and Jordan are pushing for United Nations' condemnation of Israel for the Israeli military government's recent removal of the elected mayors of El Bireh, Nablus, and Ramallah. Both countries are encouraging resistance to the Israeli plan to strengthen the hand of pro-Israeli ''village leagues'' on the West Bank.
But the Arab world is reduced to standing by and watching for some very good reasons. The most important one is Israel's clear military superiority in the Middle East. Officials in the Arab world admit they are not prepared for a military clash. In addition, Arab hands are tied because of:
* The Iran-Iraq war. Growing in intensity, the war continues to split the Arab world into Iranian and Iraqi camps. Syria's support for non-Arab Iran has angered Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Iran's recent successes on the battlefield and signs of Iranian involvement in insurgency elsewhere in the Gulf have caused great concern in conservative Arab countries. A Western diplomat in Damascus comments: ''The Saudis are perhaps more worried about Iran today than about Israel.''
* The Israeli cordon around the West Bank.Many West Bank Palestinians, especially the young, are sympathetic to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and listen to Arab radio broadcasts that daily condemn Israel. But the border is well sealed by Israel, and the Israeli Army moves freely through all parts of the occupied territories. Moreover, PLO sympathizers are dealt with swiftly by Israeli authorities. In practical terms, then, West Bank Palestinians realize they are in it alone against the Israeli military government.
* Jitters over southern Lebanon. Since the July 24, 1981, cease-fire between Israel and the PLO (technically, an indirect one), neither the PLO nor Arab governments such as Syria have wanted to risk being caught breaking the truce. This is because Israel stands ready to seize on such an incident as reason for attacking Palestinian guerrillas in southern Lebanon.
When the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in Beirut claimed responsibility for a grenade attack on an Israeli Army patrol in Gaza March 25, moderates within the PLO were reported to be angered that the DFLP had jeopardized the cease-fire.
* The Sinai wait-and-see. Until the Israeli pullout from Sinai is completed April 25, Egypt is still boxed in. Being the most militarily powerful country in the Arab world, Egypt's temporary absence from that world means Arab confrontation of Israel is a virtual impossibility.
Despite the relatively gentle treatment of Egypt by hard-line Arab governments such as Syria, there is still much consternation over the bind the Sinai waiting game has put the Arabs in. Referring to Egypt, the Syrian newspaper Tishreen said March 25 that West Bank resistance to Israel was ''a strong slap on the face of those in the Arab region who surrendered to their nation's enemies.''
In recent off-the-record discussions with Arab officials in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank, this correspondent found a deep-down belief that Israel's Menachem Begin will not listen to the US anyway -- and that he might be driven to even more hard-line acts by a cutoff in US aid.
Though confronting ''Israeli aggression'' is a great rallying cry among Arabs , at the popular level there is great dissatisfaction with existing Arab leaders. Syria's Hafez Assad has never been widely admired; the tremendously heavy-handed crushing of rebels at Hama last month has chilled and disgusted many of Mr. Assad's own countrymen.
Jordan's King Hussein is known for his moderation, but he is not liked by most of the important West Bank and Lebanon-based Palestinian leaders. Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi both have limited followings outside their own countries.
Interestingly, though, diplomats in the Arab world note that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has sparked a great deal of quiet curiosity. His physical resemblance to the late Gamal Abdel Nasser and his refusal to visit Jerusalem have played well in most corners of the Arab world.
But whether Mr. Mubarak and Egypt emerge to lead the Arab world will take at least another month to determine. By then, many Arab officials fear, Israel will have tightened its grip on the West Bank -- and may even have annexed the territory.