Prime Minister Begin has appealed to Americans friendly to Israel, and especially to American Jews, to back up his government. The present course of the Israeli government, however, seems to be working against, not in favor of, its own interests, and it is important to see why.
Five years ago even the steps taken last November by President Sadat toward conciliation and recognition of Israel would have been unthinkable. It would be tragic if, five years from now, we look back on his visit as a missed opportunity. It would be particularly damaging to Israel if its own recalcitrant diplomacy were held responsible for failure in 1978. For Israel to live without peace is a sufficiently bleak prospect; even worse would be growing doubts by Israel’s friends whether its pursuit of peace was as sincere, flexible, and determined as its own interests require. The current rigid and unforthcoming position of Israel’s government—although not necessarily its public opinion—has already caused such doubts to arise.
Israel’s government seems to assume that if peace cannot be achieved now a more favorable settlement will somehow be more likely later on. After all, the chances for peace have seemed more promising this year than perhaps ever before. If Sadat were willing to break ranks with his Arab allies and come to Jerusalem in November, why shouldn’t even more favorable conditions emerge in the future?
This could be a disastrous misperception. To be sure, Sadat’s initiative was partly born of despair and frustration, and it is far from clear that it can yield a just peace. But if it fails, this example of a more conciliatory approach by an Arab leader will be seen as futile and cautionary to other nations If Sadat falters, the prospects of a settlement will be dim, at least for the next few years; and this result will be more harmful and costly to Israel than its leaders seem willing to recognize. Time is working against the Israeli government’s position for several fundamental reasons, including the increasing pressures on its economy; its changing demography; its waning military superiority; and the dangers posed to its relations with the US.
Few modern industrial economies have burdens comparable to those of Israel today. Its tax rates may be the highest in the Western world. Its foreign debt amounts to about $10 billion, close to $3,000 per person. Strained as its economic resources may be, its budget and its budgetary deficit continue to mount, largely because of defense spending, which consumes a portion of its GNP higher than in any other nation: 32 percent in 1975 compared with 23 percent in Egypt, 9 percent in Iran (which was arming rapidly), and 6 percent in the United States. The figure has grown since.
The defense burden, of course, adds heavily to Israel’s balance of payments deficit and to its frightening rate of inflation. In 1977, in spite of exports valued at $6 billion, Israel’s payments …