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Can Begin Be Stopped?

1.

Is the Reagan plan dead? On April 10, King Hussein announced that Jordan would neither act “separately nor in lieu of anybody else in Middle East peace negotiations.” This has seriously undermined hopes that President Reagan’s call on September 1 for Palestinian self-rule in association with Jordan would revive the “peace process.” The king’s statement also releases Reagan from the promise he made to Hussein in December that if Jordan were willing to enter talks, he would confront the Israeli government over its settlement policies in advance of any negotiations. As if to underscore the threat of that promise being made again, the World Zionist Organization (which does what the Israeli cabinet wants) revealed in early April a plan for fifty-seven new settlements in the West Bank to be completed by 1987. Some would be added to those in the heart of Arab-populated areas, between Nablus and Jenin. Also planned are 250 miles of new roads and up to 125 acres a year for industrial projects “to encourage private initiative.”1

This looks like a formula for settler colonialism, and also for expelling those Arabs who actively oppose it. Yet a senior State Department official told me a week after Hussein’s announcement what had, he said, always been made clear to Jordan: “America cannot force any issue on Israel in the absence of an Arab peace partner.” He denied that Hussein’s statement foreclosed further action in support of the Reagan proposals; but he conceded that there was nothing left for the administration to do except “more of the same.” Can that be enough? Or, having outlasted this last show of Arab disharmony, does Prime Minister Begin now have a free hand to annex the West Bank?

The State Department’s insistence that such a question is premature may be more than a brave front. If the alternative to the Reagan proposals is oppressive Israeli rule of a million Palestinians, then Jordan still has strong reasons to negotiate. There has been some confusion in the press about this because few commentators have been willing to distinguish between the Reagan plan in principle, and the “initiative” regarding possible talks with Israel which Reagan and Hussein seemed to agree on last December in Washington. Hussein has announced that he is unable to participate in the initiative. But he cannot repudiate the Reagan plan.

In fact, careful readers of his statement will see that Hussein not only did not “reject” the Reagan plan—as the New York Times headline put it—but strongly endorsed it: “We believe and continue to believe,” the king said, “in the establishment of a confederal relationship that would govern and regulate the future of the Jordanian and Palestinian peoples.” Jordan and the PLO, he said, should come to an agreement about confederation in advance—a clear contradiction of the resolution of the Palestine National Council at Algiers, which called for an independent Palestinian state in advance of confederation. “A confederal relationship would be sought if only…in recognition of the bonds which have linked the people of Jordan and Palestine throughout history.”

In the current situation, which Hussein characterized in his statement as “no war-no peace,” the Jordanians are potentially the most vulnerable side. Hussein as much as conceded this: “Israel forges ahead…with a systematic policy of evacuating the West Bank to change the demographic composition of the occupied Arab territories…. We strive to confront this program, which stands to affect Jordan more than any other country and which threatens Jordan’s identity and national security.” Palestinians make up a majority on the East Bank, and some 300,000 have come from the West Bank in the last ten years. An independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—such as the one demanded by the Palestine National Council at Algiers—would undermine the legitimacy of Hashemites in Amman more directly than it would threaten Israelis in Tel Aviv.2

So the administration intends to redouble its effort to reassure Hussein that he alone is America’s choice to make a settlement for the Palestinians; and that Arafat can have a part only if he will lead Fatah to a Jordanian confederation. The administration might have been clearer about this all along. A State Department official told me that Hussein decided not to “make his move” now partly because of the mixed message Arafat kept getting from President Reagan, via the Saudis, that Hussein’s failure to achieve an agreement with Arafat might lead to de factor American recognition of the PLO.3

The king, it must be said, showed none of this ambiguity in his statement. Rather, he openly mocked Arafat’s political pretensions: “We leave it to the PLO and the Palestinian people to choose the ways and means for the salvation of themselves and their land, and for the realization of their declared aims in the manner they see fit.” He ended with a warning: “As for us in Jordan, we find ourselves more concerned than anybody else to confront the de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which forces us to take all measures to secure our national security in all its dimensions.”

Hussein may yet try some dramatic move, such as a plebescite on the East Bank, to demonstrate the support of Jordan’s Palestinians and gain more support on the West. (“I can’t talk about that,” the senior State Department official told me.) But Hussein cannot go ahead with much of anything without Saudi backing. And the Saudis let him down. They became anxious about the pace of Syrian rearmament—there are more than four thousand Soviet advisers in Syria—and about the power of pro-Syrian Palestinian radicals to commit acts of violence in the Gulf. The Abu Nidal group’s assassination of Isam as-Sartawi in Portugal was a clear enough sign of that power. Harvard professor Nadav Safran put it this way: “The Americans did not move fast enough. Now the Saudis fear Syrian threats more than they are encouraged by American blandishments. Hussein—whom the Saudis have long viewed as an ally—now feels that he cannot depend on their support even for a first step.”

Hussein has an obvious stake in the administration’s promise to get a moratorium on Israeli settlements. The Saudis seem to feel they have a greater stake in maintaining a show of Arab unity that will obscure their weakness. In spite of the administration’s controversial campaign to sell them AWACS and other advanced weapons—perhaps because of it—the Saudis are skeptical about US promises to apply economic sanctions to Israel. Moreover, Saudi oil revenues are declining and the Saudi budget has a deficit of $10 billion. King Fahd is in a cautious mood. While the administration has suspended deliveries of F-16s to Israel until Begin comes to terms on the Lebanon negotiations, Israel continues to command the skies without the new planes. And the Egyptian government is contributing to the Saudis’ paralyzing show of solidarity with the PLO. President Mubarak, though he has encouraged Arafat to join the “initiative,” has openly disagreed with Secretary of State Shultz’s view that the PLO should lose its mandate to represent the Palestinians. Egyptians were deeply embarrassed by their peace treaty with Israel during the Lebanese war. The Mubarak regime has something to prove. So does Shultz, whose intervention in the Lebanon negotiations may be the prelude to an effort to rid the Saudi regime of its doubts about US “resolve” to freeze Israeli settlements.

2.

That resolve is certainly in question. Some of the administration officials I talked to openly confessed their doubts about the power of the US to prevent Begin from annexing the West Bank. An American diplomat in Tel Aviv assured me that overt American pressure on Israel would only reinforce Begin’s proven electoral majority. More recently, a White House official told me he was concerned about President Reagan’s standing among American Jews as the presidential election draws closer. And one can never be sure how Congress will react, even if Reagan should want to get tougher with Begin. A State Department official complained: “In September Begin rejected the Reagan plan outright, and then, in December, the lame-duck Congress turned around and increased the appropriation for Israel by $475 million.” As if to rub that in, the American Jewish Committee sent to American newspaper editors the results of a new Gallup poll in February, claiming that “pro-Israel sympathies of Americans have returned to levels comparable to the period before the ‘Lebanese crisis….’Half of all Americans (49 percent) now continue to support Israel as against 12 percent supporting Arab nations.” Is there nothing the American government can do but make its case to the Israeli public and hope for the best?

Just how much leverage on Israel, in any case, does the US now have? Do the actions of Begin’s government imply that it is less now than, say, during the Camp David negotiations when President Carter’s warnings to Begin were decisive in getting Israel to withdraw the north Sinai settlements? It is true that Israel is now building more of its own aircraft, missiles, tanks, and small weapons. But in fact, US power over the Israeli economy is far greater than ever before and is growing every month. And Israel’s unprecedented dependence on American aid partly derives, ironically, from the Begin government’s extravagant investment in the West Bank. Israel is using about $200 million a year to build housing, shopping centers, and industry there—much of which would not otherwise have been spent within the old borders. But the government is spending many times that sum to produce an illusion of social prosperity so that the Likud’s major electoral constituencies—the young, the least educated, and North African Jews resentful of the old Labor aristocracy—will continue to go along with Begin’s paternalist style and triumphalist ideology. Begin, to be blunt, is using American money to create a fait accompli that will make it impossible to carry out the American government’s policy.

This manipulation of American aid has its origins in Israel’s electoral politics. During the first three years of the Likud government—from 1977 to 1980—Israel suffered badly from a combination of the government’s more liberal investment policy, rampant tax evasion, enormous military expenditure, and inflationary trends in the Western nations. The austerity budgets of the first two Likud finance ministers, Simcha Ehrlich and Yigael Hurwitz, provoked labor unrest and social resentment but still did not bring down the inflation rate below 100 percent. What was worse for the Likud as the election year approached was that this hyperinflation produced a fall in industrial production, though the worst effects of this were mitigated by the new American aid grants linked to the Camp David accords. Likud governments set up wage controls and cut subsidies of essential commodities such as food and gasoline, but these policies did little to reverse the decline in real income that soon began to alienate poorer voters from among the young and the Sephardic communities.

  1. 1

    The Jerusalem Post, April 10.

  2. 2

    See my article, “Looking Over Jordan,” in The New York Review, April 28.

  3. 3

    Karen Elliot House confirms this point from the king’s side in The Wall Street Journal, April 14.

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