The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), long an amorphous but powerful force present in the wings, has emerged from October's Arab summit conference at Rabat as a leading formal actor in the tangled relationships of the Middle East, a role reinforced by the PLO's reception at the United Nations in November. In one sense, this is a desirable development. Ever since the basic configuration of Middle Eastern international politics was set in the aftermath of World War II the Palestinians have been deprived not only of statehood, but also (and concomitantly) of the physical and moral resources which come with formal authority. In an era when in some parts of the world statehood is increasingly becoming an empty shell, the nation-state is alive and vigorous in the Middle East and elsewhere in the developing world. In this sense, therefore, the Palestinians deserve their place in the sun.

In another sense, these developments may forebode disaster. They make the chances of the outbreak of yet another round of Arab-Israeli warfare-this time potentially a catastrophic round-very much greater. The purpose of this article is to conjecture why the risks of war may now be so much greater, and to suggest what the United States might do to prevent new major warfare from occurring. Its purpose, also, is to ask what interests the United States has in the relationship between the Israelis and their Arab enemies, and to ask what U.S. policies might further those interests.


Less gloomy forecasts might also be made. For instance, one could argue that the accession of the PLO to formal authority not only is desirable as a means of giving due acknowledgment to a Palestinian identity, but is desirable as well because-provided it is met with an enlightened and creative response on the part of the Israelis-it suddenly makes possible a radical departure from the past structure of Arab-Israeli relationships. At the end of this line of argument lies a vision of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, the two entering into harmonious and mutually beneficial economic relations, old enmities gradually atrophying under the impetus of concrete cooperation toward progress.

This vision was impossible, it might be argued, before the formal emergence of the Palestinians. So long as they had no territorial base of their own, all territory was potentially open to their claims. Yasir Arafat and his colleagues in the PLO are, it is often asserted, not only "moderate" by comparison with other groups aspiring to speak and act for the Palestinians, but also-perhaps-genuinely moderate in their willingness now to abjure terrorism and ultimately even to recognize Israel's existence as a state. Now that they have a potential territorial base, they may soon discover that half-a-loaf is, in fact, better than none, and that a genuine peace within circumscribed frontiers is better than the constant uncertainties of unending hostility in the search for the whole loaf. Since Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 War, there have, in fact, grown up highly interdependent and cooperative relationships between the Israeli state and the Arab (mostly Palestinian) inhabitants of the region. The task of statecraft, so this argument runs, is to perpetuate these cooperative relations while at the same time granting the Palestinians a more equal status and the security of operating from the base of their own nation-state.

A harmonious relationship between Israel and a Palestinian state may be one vision of the future made possible by Rabat. Much more likely, however, is a set of grimmer alternatives. One would, indeed, include the creation, through negotiation with Israel, of some sort of Palestinian state. But, rather than harmony, new conflict and war would eventually follow as the Palestinians-perhaps under a more radical successor leadership-reasserted their claims to Israeli territory. A second and even more likely scenario would depict no Palestinian state at all, as Israel refused to cede occupied lands to a movement pledged to its destruction; and there would be, instead, renewed war between Israel and its present Arab neighbors, augmented by a reinforced and emboldened Palestinian movement.

These alternatives derive from the profound hostility which the Palestinian leadership feels for Israel and the deeply ingrained hatred of Israel which has been imbued in the Palestinian people for over a generation, combined with the deep mistrust which the Israelis feel for those who have been the agents of terror against them. The Palestinians are the one Arab group with a genuine grievance against Israel, the one group dispossessed by the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. They remain a highly nationalistic people the basis of whose nationalism is their claim to the territory of another people whose nationalism is equally strong.

These grim alternatives also derive from the dynamics of the struggle for leadership within the Palestinian movement and within the Arab world at large. Playing upon the pervasive hatred for Israel often becomes the route to political success. No matter how successful as leaders they might otherwise be, those who favor coexistence with Israel are always vulnerable to the attacks of those who preach an apocalyptic vengeance and who equate compromise with betrayal. Revolutionary politics favors the extremist and the fundamentalist over the moderate and the compromiser. Otherwise moderate leaders are thus driven to embrace militant positions on some issues in order to protect their power to deal with others. In the Arab world, relations with Israel-indeed, often the very existence of Israel-invariably is such an issue. Given this well-rehearsed political dynamic, one does not need to distrust the present Palestinian leadership, nor does one need to posit an especially marked rigidity on the part of the Israeli leadership, to feel that the risks of new war have been substantially increased by the results of the Rabat conference.

Rabat in effect symbolized the ascendance of the assumption that history belongs to the Arabs and not to their enemies. Indeed, such has long been the Arab view. New and vastly greater oil revenues, however, make it possible to shorten "history" from decades to years, and perhaps even to months. Arab resources are now many times those of the Israelis. The much-vaunted (and, by the Arabs, deeply resented) flow of funds to Israel from Jews abroad, particularly from the United States, is now a derisory trickle compared with the enormous stream of oil dollars. Arab political leaders can tell their military commanders that price is truly no barrier to acquiring the most modern and sophisticated weapons systems. Final success on the battlefield must at last seem near at hand.


These developments probably spell the failure of Secretary of State Kissinger's attempts thus far to bring about a Middle Eastern peace. The essence of his approach has been to induce existing states-notably Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, with Saudi Arabia deeply but not directly involved-to move step-by-painstaking-step toward a modus vivendi with Israel. The Palestinians were notably left out of this formulation. They were not among the pieces on Dr. Kissinger's chessboard,1 just as they were also absent from the preferred futures of Arab leaders like President Sadat, King Hussein, King Faisal, or even President Asad. The internal dynamics of Arab politics, however, made it impossible for Sadat, Hussein, Faisal, and others to continue to overlook the Palestinians now that oil revenues have given them the means to redress Palestinian grievances. These leaders seem to have concluded that any present or future costs of embracing the Palestinian cause are now outweighed by the risks to them and their regimes in continuing not to do so. (This is not to say, incidentally, that the Kissinger-Sadat alternative future wholly neglected the Palestinians; it did not, but it contained within it only a vague and implied hope for the achievement, someday, of a Palestinian state based upon the West Bank and the Gaza strip. The Palestinians, of course, were not prepared to wait for this implied eventuality to become actual.)

The degree to which the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian leaderships in fact committed themselves to the pursuit of Secretary Kissinger's road is unclear. Nor is there evidence that Saudi Arabia, its supposed pro-American tilt notwithstanding, ever took on a similar commitment. At Rabat, indeed, the Saudis appear to have played a most uncompromising role-a not surprising turn from a leadership fundamentalist in nature and driven by (among other factors) the desire of an ill king to pray in an Arab Jerusalem once more before his death.

Therefore, with the Palestinians playing a newly pivotal role in intra-Arab politics and with the Arab world as a whole seemingly convinced that oil will turn the tables on Israel, Rabat and its aftermath seem to have made new war much more likely. It could break out in a number of ways, ranging from Arab attacks in response to Israeli rejections of demands for new withdrawals from the occupied territories to an Israeli preemptive war triggered by circumstances such as a new Arab "war of attrition," evidence of a coming Arab attack, or simply a feeling that a blow must be struck before the tables are hopelessly turned. Who knows what the Israelis might do if they feel they are being, or will be, overwhelmed? It is safe to say, however, that they would not surrender-the so-called "Masada complex" runs deep. And can it safely be predicted that they would not, in extremis, hesitate to destroy targets such as the Aswan Dam, oil facilities in many countries, and the great Arab cities of Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad if they felt threatened with destruction themselves? Nor is it likely that such a conflict-greater in scope and intensity than previous Arab-Israeli wars-would not involve outside forces. Secretary of State Kissinger feared a U.S.-Soviet clash in October 1973. He would have more reason to be afraid in a future Middle Eastern war.


In this situation, the only potential stabilizers with any chance of success are the two superpowers. If the United States and the Soviet Union were to introduce their own forces into demilitarized zones between Israel and its neighbors, and to take measures to restrain deliveries of arms to all the belligerents, the Israelis would feel sufficiently reassured to withdraw from occupied territories; such a demonstration of force majeure would also almost certainly lead the Palestinians (and their Arab supporters) to accept the fact that the existence of Israel was no longer an issue subject to dispute, and that their own territorial expression would be no more-but no less-than the West Bank and, perhaps, Gaza.

Various models of U.S.-Soviet collaboration along these lines might be sketched out, all of them involving Israeli withdrawal to boundaries that thenceforward would be internationally guaranteed. They are unlikely ever to be made actual, however, because the regional interests of the two superpowers diverge in so many respects. While the Soviet leadership obviously does not wish to see a wider war erupting from an Arab-Israeli conflict, it has nothing like the same interest as does an American administration in seeing an end to Arab-Israeli violence. Indeed, not only does Soviet influence within the Arab world almost certainly depend upon the continuation of high levels of Arab-Israeli hostility, but the Russians must wish nothing but ill (short of annihilation) for a state such as Israel, which has attracted as settlers so many of the Soviet intellectual, cultural, and scientific elite.

U.S.-Soviet collaboration would certainly be the most desirable way to prevent the outbreak of new Arab-Israeli war because it would explicitly involve the U.S.S.R. in a guarantee of Israel's existence and security, and thereby eliminate an element which, more often than not, has been a force for instability in the region. Desirable also would be participation by others, such as Canada or the members of the European Community. However, any role more far-reaching than a diplomatic one by Western powers other than the United States remains unlikely: the events of the Middle East seem psychologically too remote, and the vulnerability of European economies to possible Arab oil pressures still seems too great.2 Yet desirable though a collaborative effort might be-especially one including the U.S.S.R.-it would not be essential. It is the role of the United States which is critical, and it is very likely that unilateral American action would be sufficient to create the conditions necessary to forestall the outbreak of new war. While U.S. Middle Eastern policy has fluctuated over the course of the past three decades, one element has consistently been present-successive administrations have firmly stated that the United States will not allow Israel to be destroyed. In recent years, such a declaratory policy has meant essentially two things. First, the United States will supply Israel with war matériel it needs to defend its independence. Second, the United States will balance Soviet intrusions into the area and, indeed, work to neutralize Soviet influence. (In some instances "neutralizing Soviet influence" has meant economic and even military assistance for Israel's enemies.)

Most Americans who have concerned themselves with the military balance in the Middle East-including the American military establishment-have until now concluded that supplying the Israelis with the weapons they need would be sufficient to maintain Israel's security. They are no longer so confident that supplies alone will be enough. Processes of modernization throughout the Arab world have considerably increased Arab abilities to fight a sustained war. And the decisive change in the economic balance between Israel and the Arab states brought about by the four-fold increase in oil prices over the past 18 months has removed all resource constraints from Arab armament efforts. It has also vastly increased the incentives for arms suppliers the world over to contribute the fruits of the latest and most sophisticated technologies to any Middle Eastern customer willing to pay for them. These arms suppliers include the United States-a fact which must work to make less credible the existing American commitment to Israel.

These developments have introduced additional strains into the U.S.-Israeli relationship. U.S. efforts to resupply the Israelis after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War were highly effective, but late in coming. Since then, substantial American supplies have flowed to Israel, but they have not been at all what the Israelis have felt that they need in order to provide for their security. In some instances, American stocks simply have not been available. In others, supplies have been slowed as part of Secretary Kissinger's efforts to induce moderation on all Middle Eastern sides. Now, with a new war more likely, the Israelis are asserting-and not simply for bargaining purposes-that their inventories in some vital areas are critically low.

Thus, the vast transformation in the relative abilities of the two sides to command resources, together with the gradual but steady improvement in the fighting abilities of Arab forces, have worked and will continue to work to undermine the credibility of the American commitment to Israeli independence. Several years ago, Senator Fulbright, hardly regarded as pro-Israeli in his sympathies, observed that the United States paid the price of being identified by the rest of the world as Israel's ally, and yet-because the Israelis were not sufficiently confident of the U.S. commitment-we did not derive the benefits which an actual alliance might bring. He suggested that we might remove any shred of ambiguity, perhaps even going so far as to station American military contingents on Israeli territory. Such concrete evidence of a U.S. commitment would, Fulbright implied, give the Israelis the confidence required to abandon their dependence for security upon holding Arab territory; in turn, it would give Washington the means to insist that the Israelis must withdraw from territories seized during the 1967 war. And so long as they had assurances of a prompt and effective U.S. military response to future large-scale Arab attacks, they should also be willing to give up the choice of launching a preemptive war of their own.

Assuming that Senator Fulbright put forward his suggestion in good faith (and not, as his more recent statements sometimes seem to suggest, in order to make the U.S.-Israeli relationship subject to a blocking vote by one-third of the Senate, that fraction sufficient to prevent ratification of a treaty), even going so far as he proposed might not give the Israelis all the assurance they feel necessary. While they might be able to give up the option of preemptive war, complete withdrawal from the occupied territories might be difficult for them even with a U.S. presence. Memories of 1967, when U.N. peacekeeping forces were simply withdrawn at Arab requests despite Israeli wishes, would continue to be powerful. One American administration might not wish to honor the pledges of its predecessor. Particularly with an issue as politically divisive as overseas involvements, today's commitments would not irrevocably bind tomorrow's politicians. Even an offer of an alliance would, therefore, put the Israeli leadership in something of a dilemma: they would undoubtedly agree that only in the presence of a concrete American commitment could they-in the absence of credible Arab assurances-afford to accept the increased military vulnerability that would come from surrendering occupied territory. On the other hand, in order to do so they would need to be convinced that the identity of interests between Israel and the United States was perceived in Washington as being far-reaching indeed, and not one which might be easily disavowed by a future American administration.


It is worth arguing, for the moment, that no such far-reaching U.S.-Israeli identity of interests exists, and that, save for the undeniable influence of a religious and cultural heritage shared between American and Israeli Jews, there are no overriding American interests at stake in Israel's survival as a state. Such an argument would recognize, first, that despite all the history dating back to biblical times of continuous Jewish settlement, the presence of large numbers of Jews-and a modern Jewish state-in the area that was Palestine is essentially another of the anomalous outcomes brought about by the global redistribution of power at the end of World War II; second, that the global configuration of power has now so changed that, given their vast new wealth, the Arabs may never be induced to accept the existence of an Israeli state within their midst; and third, that what the Arabs insist upon is not annihilation of the Israelis, in the sense that Hitler sought to exterminate the Jews, but rather, the destruction of the Israeli state, with its inhabitants (but not necessarily all of them) departing.

A conclusion which might be drawn from these arguments is that the United States should no longer attempt to prevent the inevitable from happening. Rather than continuing to uphold the anomalous Israeli state, enlightened American statecraft should act to facilitate the inevitable transition in accord with the new realities of power, and should work to provide not only for the resettlement of the Palestinians but also (ironically) for the resettlement of the Israelis. No policy, it might further be argued, would better ensure that the Arabs will not play the preeminent global role to which they now aspire: once they succeed in removing the Israeli "foreign body" from their midst, they will fall upon each other in a series of internecine quarrels that may outlast the century. Nothing unites like a common enemy; nothing divides like victory.

Such a solution might perhaps be described as "Metternichean." The Austrian Chancellor was not above sacrificing the interests of a small state in order to further a larger design. Yet in the case of the present-day Middle East, such a solution would really be viable only if one could be certain that "post-Israel" conflict in the area would not, like the Arab-Israeli conflict, be likely to spread beyond the region. Needless to say, there can be no assurance of such insulation.

Such speculation is idle, however. American diplomacy is not and never has been "Metternichean," the Secretary of State's public image notwithstanding. The imperatives of American domestic politics have made it necessary for American foreign policy to serve a set of overarching, transcendental values. These values pertain in part to the liberal, pluralistic nature of American society, and to the consequent necessity that the deeply-felt concerns of important groups within it should have significant effects on both domestic and foreign policy. In the case of Israel, this necessity is compounded by the widely felt humanitarian anguish at the fate of the European Jews during the Second World War. Neither the moral nor the cultural bases for the American commitment to Israel could be disregarded without serious damage to our national self-esteem.

Yet there are more fundamental values at stake. These values have, in various ways and in various periods, always pertained to the ideal of preserving freedom-preserving freedom within the United States and propagating democratic, pluralistic forms of government abroad. The "tragedy of American diplomacy" is that along the way, in the service of this ideal, so many flagrantly antithetic actions have been taken in order to prop up so many patently authoritarian regimes, climaxing with the debacle of Vietnam. The result has been such a cheapening of the currency of discourse that the core of values underlying American diplomacy has become almost unrecognizable; a concomitant is a pervasive and widespread desire to retreat from international responsibilities, and the coming to maturity of a generation of Americans imbued with a cynicism and skepticism regarding the notion that the United States should play a role in assuring the survival of free governments anywhere.3

In the case of Israel, the consequences of these attitudes are indeed tragic. For Israel is one of those relatively few societies-including the liberal democracies of Western Europe, North America, Australasia, and Japan-clearly devoted to the pursuit of paths leading to the extension of human liberty as it is commonly conceived in the United States, and to those values to which Americans have been rhetorically committed in their foreign policy throughout their history. In consequence, the United States has stood since World War II in a special relationship to those societies, with a special concern for their survival and political well-being.

During the entire postwar era, successive administrations in Washington have justified the preservation of liberal democratic governments abroad as a worthy goal of American foreign policy by the contention that without their preservation the survival of free institutions in the United States would be jeopardized. This is, to say the least, a very difficult contention to prove, and the difficulty of providing proof has been one factor underlying current neo-isolationist attitudes among Americans. An argument perhaps more effective in the long run might have been one which did not depend upon such an instrumental linkage with American domestic conditions, but which instead put the case for helping free societies squarely on the basis of the intrinsic value of preserving and extending non-authoritarian government. An American commitment to Israel's survival might well be justified, therefore, not by attempting to relate the survival of Israeli institutions to that of American institutions-or, for that matter, to ethnic and religious linkages-but for the value of the Israeli experiment itself.


The intrinsic importance of the survival of the Israeli state is, in fact, an unarticulated premise shared by many Americans concerned with issues of foreign policy. Certainly it is one shared by President Ford and Secretary Kissinger, and it extends far beyond the Jewish community. Yet most of these same Americans simultaneously take for granted the assumption, supported by opinion polling over the last several years, that the American polity will not stand for the acquisition of additional overseas commitments. This, of course, is one of the most profound consequences of the Vietnam War, and one more reason why American participation in that war is likely to be seen by future historians as the cause of a major turning point in international history.

Yet, policy-makers and the "attentive public" concerned with foreign policy should carefully consider the potential consequences of not making even more clear the solidity of the American commitment to Israel's survival. It has been argued above that the United States, more than any other single actor in the Middle East drama, is capable of deterring future Arab attacks upon Israel, of preventing preemptive war on the part of the Israelis, and of moving the Israelis along more conciliatory paths that will help lay the foundation for a long-term settlement. It is arguable, also, that the cost of such an American role to U.S. interests in the Arab states-including oil supplies-would not be prohibitive. Indeed, it is likely that Arab leaders such as Sadat, Hussein, and Faisal would actually welcome such an American commitment (although they could not say so publicly) so long as it were accompanied by Israeli withdrawals. For this might make it possible for them to resist Palestinian appeals for greater military efforts against Israel without being plausibly held up as traitors to the Arab cause.

An absolutely unambiguous American commitment-one perhaps including the stationing of contingents of American forces in Israel-would not be easy politically for any administration. But the political consequences of an Israeli defeat would be far worse. An obvious adverse political consequence would be turmoil in American cities with significant Jewish populations. Even more explosive would be the political effects of the United States being, perhaps, dragged into a future ongoing Arab-Israeli war in order to counteract Soviet participation-an ambiguity clarified too late.

If there ever were a political situation which cried out for measures to reduce ambiguity, it is the present stage of conflict in the Middle East. The relatively ambiguous nature of the present American commitment encourages the Palestinians along the road of irredentism and silences voices for moderation both among the Palestinians themselves and among the other Arab peoples. It induces Israeli military leaders and politicians alike to think in terms of worst-case scenarios, and therefore not to make the sort of territorial concessions which will be so vitally necessary if a genuine end to hostilities in the Middle East is ever to come. And it does not deter those in the Soviet Union who, for reasons of domestic and international politics alike, would pursue adventurist courses. Thus the combination of a penchant for keeping options open, so much a characteristic of American foreign policy in the last decade, together with a widespread view that an unambiguous commitment cannot be managed politically, is likely to produce the worst possible outcome-a war in which the Israelis might suffer drastically and in which the United States might very well find itself, willy-nilly, involved.

It is at least arguable-and it is argued here-that any certainty in the U.S. Middle Eastern role is now more desirable than the role which American diplomacy has played since the Yom Kippur War. Since the United States finds it politically impossible to wash its hands of Israel (one type of certainty), an overt and explicit commitment to Israel's defense-including even the stationing of U.S. military contingents in Israel-remains the most logical choice for those who would prevent a new war. Since 1945, overseas deployment of American military forces has done much to stabilize regions of potential conflict such as Germany and Korea. Beneath the umbrella of deterrence, regional political wounds have healed, and peace has been preserved.

Until very recently an explicit American commitment to Israel's survival seemed to most observers unnecessary. Indeed, a less ambiguous commitment would have worked against the delicate diplomacy which Secretary of State Kissinger set in motion in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. Those diplomatic efforts seem now to have failed. One should not make too much of this failure: the margin between success and failure in diplomacy is often extremely narrow, and we do not know just how narrow was the margin which tipped Arab governments along the path which led to Rabat, rather than to the sort of de facto (and potentially de jure) settlement which Secretary Kissinger had in mind. Now that the nature of the game in the Middle East has changed, however, and a new and potentially unstable-and destabilizing-Palestinian entity has emerged, the time is past when ambiguity in the American role might have proved useful.


1 But one cannot be absolutely certain they were not; part of Kissinger's negotiating method has been deliberate ambiguity-to make sure that none of the parties know exactly what pieces are on his board.

2 Statements made by representatives of Canada and of the Western European states during November's U.N. debate seemed to support a potential settlement much along the lines urged by this article. They leave ambiguous, however, any definition of possible roles by the governments on whose behalf the statements were made. Such ambiguity was obviously intentional. But, as this article goes on to argue, in the new phase of the Middle East conflict ambiguity no longer is in any way productive.

3 This is not to suggest that neo-isolationism is the predominant attitude. It coexists uneasily with others, some of them contradictory. One contradictory attitude which cannot altogether be dismissed is a Realpolitik which argues that the United States should intervene with military force to seize Arab oil production facilities in order to assure a supply of moderately priced petroleum.

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