World News

A buy-now, pay-later peace

William Lowther March 26 1979
World News

A buy-now, pay-later peace

William Lowther March 26 1979

A buy-now, pay-later peace

World News

William Lowther

Sign now, pay later. That appeared to be the situation at week’s end as Israel, Egypt and the United States prepared to complete a Middle East peace treaty bought—like the piano in the parlor—on time. But appearances were deceptive. For one thing, President Jimmy Carter’s cheque-book diplomacy might prove in the longer run to have cost a lot more than money; for another there was even doubt that there would be a long run.

Within days of Carter’s triumphant return, a revolt in the Israeli cabinet and an interview by Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali on French radio seemed to cast a shadow over the euphoria. The reason for both was the future of the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip and West Bank of the Jordan River. The Israeli National Religious Party, partner in Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s coalition, was worried that he

might give away too much; Ghali feared Begin might give away too little. He wanted an exchange of letters establishing a “calendar” for Palestinian “autonomy” in the territories, which Israel captured in the 1967 war. Without it, he said, there would be no treaty.

Meanwhile, in the process of picking up the tab for peace, Carter had underlined anew the decline of American power in the world. Wrote the highly respected U.S. political commentator Joseph Kraft, “The sad truth is that it took an American president six days of round-the-clock shuttle diplomacy to budge by a couple of millimetres two countries almost totally dependent on the United States.”

Not only that, but Carter’s top aides—a team headed by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and including the president’s son Chip—were to spend most of this week back in the Middle East desperately trying to persuade Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other

Arab countries not to scuttle the deal. For despite the implied might of superpower backing, the agreement between Israel and Egypt remained as fragile, and as open to differing interpretations, as a Dead Sea scroll.

Even on the political front at home all was not plain sailing. Had Carter returned to Washington empty-handed, it is doubtful, in view of his other foreign policy failures, that he could have won the 1980 election. Now, at least, he has another chance, though his reputation is still badly dented. Among the jokes— always a bad sign—circulating in Washington last week was one by British historian Paul Johnson. He told a private luncheon meeting: “It seems Mr. Carter is like a cushion. He carries the imprint of the last person to sit on him.”

It was still not clear, at week’s end, just what the complete treaty package contained. All sides wanted to keep some aspects secret. But from private briefings given by Carter to con-

gressmen and from later leaks, it was possible to piece together an outline.

Begin is to get a “letter of assurance” from the U.S. promising its support in case of Arab attack, a coup in Egypt or other threats and detailing exactly how that situation will be met.

On the question of “autonomy” for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, both Sadat and Begin have backed down a little. Begin has agreed that some restrictions, on the holding of political meetings and freedom of travel, will be lifted on the signing of the treaty. He has also agreed that negotiations will start at once and be completed within a year to draw up plans for freely held elections on the question. Sadat has agreed to soften his approach and not insist on a firm date for those elections.

Egypt has backed down over other treaties it has with Arab nations. At least one of these committed Cairo to invade Israel should other states, such as Syria, vote to do so. But the new treaty with Israel will take precedence. The Egyptians have also backed down over an exchange of ambassadors. They had originally insisted that this would

not happen until the Palestinians had their autonomy, but now they have agreed to an exchange as soon as the Israelis leave the Sinai.

In return for these concessions Carter agreed to pay about $5 billion in aid. But when the amount the U.S. is already giving Egypt and Israel was added, the real cost over the next three or four years will be much more than $10 billion. Carter planned to divide the $5 billion down the middle: $1 billion on relocating two Israeli air bases from the Sinai to the Negev; $1 billion on economic aid to Egypt; and $1.5 billion in military assistance for each side.

Egypt was quick to submit a list of arms: 300 F-16 fighters, 600 tanks, 500 artillery pieces, 2,000 armored troop carriers, antiaircraft missiles, naval destroyers and submarines. The irony, not to say the danger, of providing such an arsenal in exchange for a peace treaty was not lost on the Pentagon. But the White House last week was rationalizing the offer in terms of Egypt’s “concern” for, particularly, its poor relations with its neighbor Libya and the security of Sudan.

But it was not the price in dollars which worried some Western observers. They agreed that while the chief Western interest in the Middle East was the long-term safeguarding of its

oil supplies, there were serious doubts that an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty on the terms agreed would in fact achieve that aim.

For one thing, the issue of Palestinian self-determination had been brushed aside, creating a situation in which some of the principal “moderate” oil suppliers had been forced to take the side of Arab “militants.” For another, there was a genuine danger that massive infusions of arms and economic aid into Egypt would create a situation not unlike that in pre-revolutionary Iran.

It was the Palestinian situation, however, which was the touchstone of Arab opposition to the treaty and which, therefore, probably held the key to future events. As diplomats in half a dozen capitals were only too willing to point out last week, while “self-determination” and “autonomy” sound much the same, they are not so in reality.

What the Palestinians were likely to get was described not very long ago by a correspondent of the Israeli daily paper Haaretz as “empty of meaning.” In essence it boiled down to a measure of local government without any real control over finance, land and water resources or law and order which, a committee headed by Eliahu BenElissar, director-general of Begin’s office recommends, would continue

to be enforced by Israel.

Jewish settlements, on the other hand, would be linked closely with the Israeli civil administration, and there were to be a great many more of them— as many as 27,000 families in 84 settlements over the next five years, according to one report.

Whether any of that would be altered by the presence, as apparently envisaged, of Egyptian observers in the occupied territories during negotiations for a “timetable” for autonomy was open to serious doubt. Certainly the Palestinians themselves did not believe so— thus last week’s vigorous protests, swiftly put down by Israeli troops whose tough manner in turn raised questions about the right of Palestinians to hold political meetings, also reportedly to be enshrined in the agreement.

Again, Palestinians’ freedom to move about inside the occupied territories left unsolved the future of those Palestinians who fled in 1967 from the Israeli invaders and who have since been prevented from returning by Israeli border guards on the Jordan bridges to reclaim their land —much of which has been expropriated.

Against that background the reported fears of the National Religious Party, which put forward five principles on autonomy—no Palestinian state and no autonomy over security, land, water or Israeli settlements—seemed premature.

That could scarcely be said, however, about fears that the terms of peace would strengthen Arab mistrust of U.S. intentions—and those of its Western allies—and lead to counter-measures ranging from an increase in terrorism to use of the oil weapon.

As Kraft pointed out, “The settlement can stick only if it spreads—first to Saudi Arabia and Jordan and then to the other Arab states and the Palestinians. That means rebuilding confidence in the United States throughout the Middle East. The starting point for that enterprise is close to zero.”

Should things go wrong, the fallout was certain to be worldwide, but nowhere thicker than on the Carter White House. There was no shortage of candidates to remind the public about even a tremor in foreign prestige. On the eve of Carter’s return from the Middle East, Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut became the sixth Republican to enter the presidential race, while in the Democratic Party unrest continued to grow. So did the number of “Carter” jokes. The latest was perhaps the most telling. “Do you think that Jimmy Carter will be a one-term president?” asked the straight man on one TV talk show. “Yeah,” replied the comic, “he may make it that far.”