In the confrontation between Reagan and Begin, Reagan is playing the part of the sheriff, and reading his lines with conviction. He was outraged by the bombing of Beirut, and especially by the massacre in the refugee camps, and now believes that a solution for the Palestinians is not to be found at the barrel of anybody’s gun. But Begin is not acting at all, even though his rhetoric and gestures are more theatrical. He has been preparing himself for such a moment as this one since he was a young man.
The Reagan initiative of September 1 was a brilliant piece of political craftsmanship and timing. My own talks in Washington and Jerusalem made it clear that those officials in the State Department who framed the new policy were not innocents. They expected that the immediate response in Israel would be defiance, that new settlements on the West Bank would probably be announced, and that Begin would try to rally the nation against being pushed around by Big Brother. Nor was it unexpected that Begin would call for early elections in Israel, though the smaller parties in his coalition may stop them.
For the Israeli government, the new American pressure is the unexpected, and unwelcome, result of the Lebanon invasion. Before the war, neither the Carter administration nor Haig and Reagan made a strong effort to encourage the negotiations for West Bank autonomy. They stood by while the Egyptians and the Israelis conducted those talks in the most desultory way for several years. During the last weeks of the campaign in Lebanon, the Americans realized that their influence in the Middle East would quickly decrease if they simply brought Philip Habib home while Israel proceeded to replace Syria as the dominant force in Lebanon and kept increasing its settlements on the West Bank. This would be like returning a fire engine to the station to await the next alarm. To be sure, during the presidential campaign and thereafter, Reagan had several times declared these settlements to be “legal”; and he did not try to force an early end to the fighting in Lebanon. Nevertheless, by mid-July the Israeli newspapers were saying that the logic of the American position would require it to make some move, after the fighting ended, toward its Arab friends. The Jordanians obviously felt threatened by the repeated assertions of Israeli officials that “Jordan is Palestine” and by Sharon’s brutally casual statements that Hussein was expendable, and that a Palestinian take-over in Amman would be welcomed by Israel.
The United States invested some of its diplomatic capital in the Middle East in ending the siege of Beirut; it put pressure on a number of unwilling Arab governments to accept a share of the PLO fighters who were to be evacuated. At the very least, even if no immediate compensation was promised, these governments had to expect some prompt American action that would be seen in their world as a redress of the balance between …
Dissent & Israel: An Exchange November 18, 1982