The recent actions of Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat have clarified the task of President Reagan if he means to pursue his September initiative for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict. By his handling of the report on the massacre of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps, Begin has clearly reaffirmed the Begin-Sharon strategy for the occupied West Bank and Gaza and for Lebanon. That report recommended that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon retire from public office or be fired for his ''indirect'' responsibility for the killings. However, Begin kept Sharon in the Cabinet, without portfolio but still influential, while naming as defense minister another hawk committed to the same policy.
These actions showed how unfounded were the hopes of some that the events in Lebanon might moderate Begin's flat rejection of the Reagan proposals for a homeland, associated with Jordan, in the occupied West Bank and Gaza for the 1.2 million Palestinian inhabitants. Instead Begin is vigorously pursuing his strategy for absorbing the West Bank and Gaza and for imposing an Israeli protectorate in southern Lebanon. The Israeli forces occupying Lebanon are being used to achieve this latter purpose. And, despite the President's request to suspend settlements on the West Bank, Begin has sharply stepped up the program with a goal of 100,000 settlers by 1985. The subsidies for this program are now costing $200 million or more per year. Many citizens and supporters of Israel are convinced that Begin's course will gravely damage Israel's long-term interests. But they have not deflected Begin or Sharon and are not likely to do so.
The meeting of the Palestinian National Council, just ended, offered a little more encouragement, despite the fiery rhetoric and splits. Its extremist minority urged total rejection of the Reagan proposals and of any cooperation with King Hussein of Jordan for negotiations. Yet Arafat remains firmly in control and kept room for maneuver by limiting the communique to calling the Reagan proposals unsatisfactory in ruling out an independent Palestinian state and not recognizing the PLO.
Still the council endorsed the Fez plan, adopted by the Arabs in September, which implicitly would recognize Israel's right to secure existence, and also accepted the idea of confederation of the Palestinian state with Jordan. This meeting and his earlier talk with Hussein suggest that Arafat would be prepared to settle on a basis not too far from the Reagan proposals. And Hussein apparently would negotiate if the PLO concurs. But neither can take the decisive step toward negotiation with an Israel following Begin's course unopposed.
The only hope for breaking the stalemate lies with the President. Thus far he has not followed through on his September initiative. The United States has countered Begin's actions only with words. And objectively it has indirectly facilitated them. The Israeli forces occupying Lebanon are largely armed with US equipment (which by law may be used only for defense). The nearly $3 billion in annual aid to Israel in effect underwrites the cost of the enormous subsidies for West Bank settlement. Moreover, by postponing the West Bank-Gaza issue until withdrawals from Lebanon, it has served Begin's desire for delay. The lack of forceful US action in the face of Israeli intransigence raises questions of credibility: Was the original initiative only a public relations gesture or was it serious?
Actually the Reagan proposals, like the US support for UN Resolution 242, are based on important US interests in stability and peace in the Middle East. Israel's course under Begin directly conflicts with those interests.
The time has come for the President to inform Begin unambiguously that this is his conviction and that he intends to counter Begin's strategy by action. Specifically he should tell him: (1) that failure to withdraw from Lebanon expeditiously (along with Syria and the PLO) will raise the question of the misuse of military assistance and of its possible suspension, (2) that the West Bank-Gaza issues will be pursued in tandem and not seriatim, and (3) that, if West Bank settlement continues, US economic assistance will be reduced as a first step by the amount Israel is spending for such settlements.
It will be said that such measures will be counterproductive. Doubtless they will not convert Begin. But his popular support is already declining. US action can dramatize the potential costs for Israel of Begin's course. The public can then consider, for example, whether the takeover of the West Bank is worth the cost in living standards now concealed by US aid.
The President would, of course, have to be prepared to take on the pro-Israeli lobby and the many members of Congress responsive to its leverage. But a determined President can prevail as Eisenhower showed in 1957 over Suez, and as was shown in the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia. His ability to do so will be especially strong in this case, when so many of Israel's loyal supporters realize that Begin's policy can be disastrous for Israel but hesitate to speak up. This is a propitious instance when a forceful assertion of US interests will also advance the real interests of Israel and of the Palestinians as well.