Jimmy Carter with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat
Jimmy Carter with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat; drawing by David Levine


No other issue in American foreign policy raises more passions than the relation of the United States to Israel. The “reassessment” decreed by Henry Kissinger after the failure, in March 1975, of his first attempt at reaching a new disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt provoked a storm. So did the Carter administration’s recent decision to put planes for Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia into a single package. The books by William Quandt and Nadav Safran help to put such events and arguments in perspective. Their very excellence contributes to the reader’s sense of foreboding.

Quandt, a political scientist from the University of Pennsylvania and a specialist on the Arab world, is now in charge of Middle Eastern Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. His book examines American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967. He distinguishes four ways of interpreting American policy: from the perspectives of strategic or national interests, of domestic politics, of bureaucratic politics, and of presidential leadership; and he analyzes the policies, plans, improvisations, and miscalculations made in Washington during the past ten years. He offers no over-all interpretation of his own, and little consideration of American domestic politics.

Nadav Safran’s enormous book has a much wider scope. Safran, a Harvard political scientist who was born in Egypt and at one time lived in Israel, has written extensively about Egypt, Israel, and American policy toward Israel. In Israel: The Embattled Ally, he has in effect produced two studies and put them under the same cover. One is a superb and comprehensive account of Israel itself—its origins in Zionism and its struggles for existence, the characteristics of its people, economy, constitution, and its party politics, and, finally, the problem of national defense since 1949, which allows Safran to describe in some detail the wars of 1967 and 1973.

Roughly the last three hundred pages of his book are a separate history of US-Israeli relations since 1949 which covers much the same ground as Quandt’s study. Here Safran is concerned with the “long-standing special relationship” between the two countries which, in the past ten years, has turned into the “present tacit alliance” and may well result, should there be a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, in a formal mutual security pact. I am not convinced, however, that the events Safran and Quandt deal with are best understood by concentrating on the theme of a special relationship.

The tone of the two books is different. Quandt is immersed in the details of his subject, and carefully documents his interpretations of events. Safran covers immense ground with a sort of Olympian equanimity. He tries to show all sides of all issues, putting each phase of US-Israeli relations into the wider context of American, Arab, and Soviet foreign policies, and thus provides the reader with a prodigious synthesis. While his interpretations seem invariably fair and balanced, I regret his decision to include no footnotes, only a vast bibliography; it would often have been helpful to know on what documents, interviews, or works a particular judgment was based. And just as there is a discrepancy between Safran’s main thesis and his evidence, there is a dissonance between the smooth and temperate tone of the book and the strident and tormented moods of the Israelis themselves, the fierceness of their leaders’ struggles—against external enemies or against one another—and the searing choices they have to make.

Whatever these differences in tone, Quandt and Safran come to similar conclusions about American policy, which they find has oscillated from the shortsighted to the clumsy, when it has not been both. American policymakers, they find, have been so obsessed with the US-Soviet relationship that they have paid too little attention to regional realities unrelated to the cold war. As Quandt points out, when Nasser provoked the crisis which led to the Six-Day War, American officials, who were already mired in Vietnam, and afraid of getting into a second Vietnam, failed to do what might have stopped Israel from attacking: they would neither reaffirm nor enforce America’s own commitment to freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran—a commitment at least as clear as that which the US had in Vietnam. They also failed to think through the consequences of Israel’s likely victory, should it resort to war, as was also likely under these circumstances.

Both Quandt and Safran tell the sad story of the Rogers Plan, when Nixon’s secretary of state tried for a comprehensive settlement, without sufficient skill or support. They show how the Jordanian crisis of September 1970 destroyed Rogers’s efforts, and led Nixon and Kissinger to rely fully on Israel as its ally against the USSR, sharing Golda Meir’s complacency.

The years 1971 and 1972 look crucial in retrospect: Nasser’s successor Sadat, having consolidated his power, announced that Egypt was now ready to enter into a peace agreement with Israel. On three occasions he turned to the United States, and was rebuffed—in June 1971, in February 1972 when he sent his national security assistant to Washington, and in July 1972, when he expelled his Soviet advisers. As Safran shows, Kissinger saw Sadat’s expulsion of the Russians not as an opening toward a settlement but as a vindication of America’s policy of support for Israel, and of his hope that détente would lead Moscow to defuse regional conflicts. But Kissinger failed to exploit Sadat’s frustration with the Soviet Union by pushing for a settlement, which he deemed both unobtainable at a price Israel could accept and unnecessary in view of Israel’s military superiority.


This huge miscalculation led to the 1973 war, which, as Quandt and Safran point out, destroyed all previous American assumptions—about Israel’s strength, about the effects of détente, and about the behavior of the Arab countries, especially the oil producers. It was only after this disaster that Kissinger decided to play the Egyptian card. Quandt is more critical than Safran of the “step-by-step” approach taken by Kissinger after the 1973 war: “Kissinger knew what he wanted to avoid better than he knew what positive goals he might be able to achieve”; his diplomacy “rates high as tactic but fails to convey any sense of long-term purpose.” On the other hand, Safran is critical of the Rabin government’s refusal to undertake a disengagement agreement with Jordan in the summer of 1974, despite Kissinger’s pressure. This refusal made it easier for the Arab summit meeting at Rabat in October to endorse the PLO, not Jordan, as the representative of the Palestinian people. Thus even the spectacular period of Kissinger’s diplomacy in the two years that followed the Yom Kippur War was a time of missed opportunities.

Both Quandt and Safran signed the 1975 Brookings Report, which proposed a comprehensive settlement and seemed to inspire the Carter administration’s Middle Eastern policy before Sadat’s initiative last November. Both end their books with warnings about the dangers of a new war, Safran eloquently demolishing the case for an Israeli nuclear deterrent. Both urge that the US pursue a general settlement. Quandt stresses the principle that a settlement be implemented by stages; he warns against overestimating Moscow’s capacities either as a peacemaker or as a spoiler, and suggests that Americans stop dividing Arabs into “moderates” and “radicals.” Safran insists that a settlement can be reached only if the United States provides, as it did in order to obtain the second Israeli-Egyptian disengagement, the “additional external input” without which the parties’ positions cannot be reconciled: heavy assistance to the Arabs, a security pact for Israel. Quandt appears less optimistic about such a pact—“other forms of expressed commitment might be equally unacceptable”—but he pleads for consistency in American policy, after years of vacillation.


Safran does not speak of vacillation; he prefers to divide the history of American-Israeli relations into two periods and four stages. Before 1967, Israel was not America’s main concern in the Middle East. After 1967, it “came to play a central role.” His own painstaking analysis shows that the American-Israeli “alliance” is not only recent—post-1967—but also that it has never been unequivocal. He points to the inconsistency between America’s vast contributions to the Israeli economy—private and, since 1967, public—and Washington’s considerable ambivalence toward Israel in matters of diplomacy and strategy.

Here, as Safran and Quandt both show, the primary concern of the US has been the Soviet Union. At first, in the heyday of containment, under Truman and Eisenhower, the US sought to align Arab states on its side, and it did so with increasing vigor as Britain’s power declined. This was a policy which contradicted America’s commitment to preserve the status quo in the Arab-Israeli dispute; the tripartite declaration of 1950 in which the US, Britain, and France committed themselves to opposing any attempt at changing the 1948 armistice boundaries by force hardly helped the effort to convert Arabs into allies. Enraged by Dulles’s efforts to base US policy on the countries of the “northern tier,” Nasser turned to the Soviet Union, thus proving that in this part of the world, preventive containment actually led to Soviet penetration. But even then, the US still tried to limit Soviet influence by avoiding too close an association with Israel: hence America’s refusal to arm Israel in 1955 and 1956, and Eisenhower’s success in forcing Israel out of the Sinai after the Suez expedition.

Even during the years that preceded the Six-Day War, when American policy in the Middle East was mainly concerned with the containment of Nasser—Moscow’s ally, engaged in a war in Yemen against Saudi Arabia—and even when America began arming Israel, Washington remained reluctant to move from a policy maintaining the balance of power to a de facto alliance with the Israelis. Lyndon Johnson was inching toward détente, and his cautious behavior during the crisis of May 1967 can best be understood not as encouraging Israel to attack—Abba Eban’s memoirs make that clear—but as an attempt to dissuade Israel from war and to solve the dispute by diplomatic means.


The war itself, and Israel’s smashing victory, began a period of quasi alliance with the US, which lasted until October 1973. The US became virtually the only source of economic and military assistance to Israel, which was now seen as the “bastion” not only of democracy in the Middle East but of strength against Soviet influence and the Soviet-armed Arab states. This quasi alliance became especially visible in the way American and Israeli strategies were coordinated during the Jordanian crisis of 1970.

But even in those years, American policy was ambiguous, as we can see from Rogers’s various plans for either a comprehensive settlement or an interim settlement to end the “war of attrition” between Egypt and Israel. Rogers counted on the Soviets to “deliver” their clients’ consent to a settlement while he was putting pressure on Israel. His terms for an over-all settlement were rejected by Israel and he was too trustful of Nasser, who soon violated the 1970 agreement for a “standstill” of forces at the Suez Canal. Nor was Rogers successful in using arms sales to Israel as a means of forcing the Meir government to negotiate, for instance, with UN Ambassador Gunnar Jarring.

Still, so long as a large part of the Arab world was under Soviet influence, US policy tended to oscillate between two approaches to the Middle East. Mainly we relied strategically and diplomatically on Israel, following the logic of “commitment” and “containment,” but we also took what might be called a “great power approach” aimed at a settlement under UN auspices, or through Soviet-American cooperation or through Four-Power talks. We saw such a settlement as the best way of limiting Soviet influence in the long run, since the Arab-Israeli conflict was the main source of Arab-Soviet cooperation. But the second approach remained, so to speak, half-hearted, because a settlement was possible only on conditions that would have looked like a considerable, although partial, victory for the Soviet Union, hence a betrayal of Israel. Then, too, the gap between Israeli and Arab positions remained a huge one.

More than the Six-Day War, the October 1973 war drastically transformed the US position. The first factor in this change was the expulsion of the Soviet Union from diplomatic as well as military influence in Egypt, and from diplomatic dominance in Syria. Paradoxically, this fulfillment of Kissinger’s dream, this victory for the cold warriors, actually put the US squarely in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict, at the center of contradictory expectations. Obviously, “even-handedness”—the pursuit of American interests in the Arab world as well as in Israel—has very different implications when the Arab world in the Middle East is largely under Soviet influence, and when it is largely in the American orbit.

This embarrassment of diplomatic riches coincides with another momentous change: the emergence of Arab economic power. In 1977 alone, for example, the oil price increase transferred about $50 billion of wealth to the Arab oil-rich countries. The US will continue to have a vital stake in access to these oil fields, and with how the new Arab wealth is spent. Thus, as Soviet influence has waned, we find ourselves engaged with our Arab clients, especially with Saudi Arabia, in a complex relation of mutual dependence in which it is far from clear who manipulates whom, and who is actually whose client. The anti-Soviet Arabs need our technology and our weapons, sometimes our economic assistance, but we need their oil. We want them to turn to us rather than to the Europeans or the Japanese, to invest their money in the US, to keep OPEC from raising oil prices to levels our allies and many developing countries could not afford, to cooperate with us in managing an increasingly acrobatic world financial system, and to refrain from converting their depreciating dollars into other currencies. Obviously these relations are much less one-sided than those between the US and Israel, in which one party is overwhelmingly dependent on the other.

Hence American foreign policy now faces two imperatives—both of which spell out the need, at last, for a long-range policy. In the past, the US could afford either myopia or vacillation or contradictions because a long-range policy was neither necessary—in so far as Israel might seem a sufficient guarantee of “stability”—nor, at times, possible, in view of the abyss between the parties, the depth of intra-Arab splits, the heat of the cold war. Now it has become imperative for Washington to see to it that Arab power be used in ways favorable to American interests. There must be no war between Arabs and Israel since such a war would expose the US to impossible choices. It is important to avoid any major confrontation between the Arabs and the US over Israel, since such a confrontation would provoke new strains between the US, Western Europe, and Japan, and prevent Arab states and the US from coordinating their policies and interests in Africa.

The second imperative is for a movement toward a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, for this is the only way to prevent a new Soviet reassertion or penetration, if not through Egypt or Jordan, then through Syria and the Palestinians. And only a settlement will consolidate the alignment of the so-called moderate Arab states with the US. Thus the Arab-Israeli conflict is increasingly seen as obsolete, an obstacle to the pursuit of the long-range interests of all the parties. Arab diplomacy toward Israel has evidently evolved in the years since the 1967 Khartoum rejection of recognition and negotiations, and especially since Sadat’s initiative. The recent deal for planes is both a consequence of the first imperative and a reminder to Israel about the second.

The significance of this transformation in America’s position is enormous, both for the US and for Israel. Formerly the Arab countries put pressure on Moscow for the means of war; today the ones we want to cultivate prod Washington toward peace—a change that puts Israel in a very tough spot. As the target of all pressures, the US has, in effect, had to shift its military and diplomatic strategies. The main priority is no longer to assure Israel’s invulnerability (although, of course, this remains a major concern); it is the need for peace. Israeli invulnerability used to be rationalized as a precondition of peace, but it has become clear that the latter does not follow from the former.

As for Israel, it can no longer ask that Washington limit itself to rendering two services: arming Israel so as to deter or defeat Arab assaults, and keeping the Soviets from intervening against Israel in case of conflict. It can no longer indulge in the illusion of a special relation with Washington superior to those between the US and Arab states. This change has been made more obvious and more painful by Sadat’s move of last November. By seizing the initiative for peace, he has gained popularity in America. By trying the blackmail of weakness on both Israel and the US—“help me, or else I may collapse and things will be far worse for you”—he has provided the US with a powerful reason for assisting him in his gamble.

The result is not a diminished American interest in Israel’s survival, but a heightened American interest in the survival of weak pro-American regimes such as Sadat’s and increased skepticism about Israel’s tendency to see in every concession a threat to the survival of Israel. The frequently expressed Israeli argument that the increased moderation of Egypt or of Saudi Arabia vindicates past Israeli toughness is no longer accepted in Washington, where there is fear that such moderation may be reversible, and a conviction that in any event it will never extend to giving up any sizable part of the lost territories to Israel. Both the Congress and the executive branch now more sharply distinguish between the American national interest and the Israeli interest. Both share a growing conviction that the Israeli government misjudges its own long-run interests, and a fear that Israel, by crying wolf too often, may act out a self-fulfilling prophecy about Arab hostile intentions, with calamitous results for America’s foreign policy.

This change in outlook coincides with the erosion of domestic support in the US for Israel. A study of that support—of its intellectual and emotional bases and its scope through the years—remains to be written: Safran, like Quandt, says little about it. Such erosion is not explained by more effective propaganda or pro-Arab lobbyists or the oil interests. It results partly from a greater appreciation among the informed public of the complex realities within the Arab world. It is true that there has been much annoyance at specific acts of clumsiness on the part of the Carter administration—its open emphasis on the importance of the PLO in the summer and fall of 1977, and the apparent overconfidence of the Soviet-American communiqué. But more pervasive has been anger and disappointment with the behavior of the Begin government since Sadat’s visit, a reaction the Carter administration’s quieter tone during the months following Sadat’s gesture has helped to maintain.

Thus, dissent from Israeli policy has become more respectable in the American-Jewish community, which is typically far less tolerant of public controversy than is Israel, and this has, in turn, encouraged greater debate and deeper dissent in Israel itself.1 A sense, in America, of the need for solidarity with the Jews on the front lines, or of patriotism, in Israel, no longer stifles doubts. Among non-Jewish Americans we can see a growing willingness to dissociate from political and diplomatic issues the sympathy for Zionism that arose in the years following the Holocaust. The fact that the Soviets are less active in the Middle East makes support for Israel as the anti-Soviet bastion less convincing than it was some years ago.


The Carter administration has obviously decided to support Sadat’s initiative, not as a device for a separate Israeli-Egyptian peace but as a first stage toward a comprehensive settlement. Carter wants to avoid blunt, blackmailing pressure on Israel, which would risk consolidating support for Begin, hardening Israeli resistance, and provoking a backlash at home. But he will try to create conditions that will render the Israeli hard line increasingly unproductive and untenable; the planes deal was an example.

A reassessment by Israel of its own position thus becomes far more urgent than it was three years ago.2 The US and Israel have had a relation of mutual deterrence that used to favor Israel. Each country had a kind of absolute weapon against the other: the threat to suspend aid as against the threat to unleash the pro-Israeli lobby. Neither side was keen on using its weapon fully, lest the relationship be destroyed. But this protected Israel, for it was up to the US to initiate the moves which only the ultimate blackmail of suspending weapons deliveries and economic assistance could have forced Israel to accept (and which might then have forced Israel to resort to its own ultimate weapon).

This situation has evidently changed: the initiative has been seized by Sadat, the pro-Israeli lobby is shaken, and the US now has another, far less blunt but no less significant, instrument, which it has begun to use—aid to its Arab friends. Should Sadat’s initiative collapse, moreover, the effects for Israel will be grave ones. It would risk further erosion of American domestic support. The damage to its own position could be severe if “moderate” Arab adversaries, who have recently taken several steps toward Israel, and are keeping Moscow out, should either be weakened or impelled to toughen their policies. And it is unlikely that the US will be merely returning to its pre-October 1973 strategy in the Middle East, with Israel as its main ally against the Soviets.

Another reason for Israel to reassess its position is the character of a new war that could result from such a fiasco: not only would it likely be at least as costly and as frustrating for Israel as the war of 1973—when the US prevented its “ally” from winning too much—but it would probably extend to more Arab states than it did in 1973, when Saudi Arabia stayed out of the fighting. As Guido Goldman has argued here,3 it is no less imperative for Israel to settle than it is for the US. Economic, military, and demographic trends are running against Israel, which cannot afford to estrange its only ally. The US, for its part, has recently shown itself willing to distinguish between an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and the creation of the much-feared “PLO state” on the West Bank; between Israeli security and Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 borders.

Israeli diplomacy cannot limit itself to the increasingly difficult manipulation of American opinion and of Congress. As many observers in Israel and abroad have concluded, the accumulation of weapons and the occupation of Arab lands have not guaranteed security and survival. Retired General Harkabi, a long-time policy adviser to Israel’s governments and an expert on Arab affairs—and certainly no dove until his recent declarations of support for the new peace movement in his country—has starkly posed the dilemma: if occupied territory is not given up, advanced weapons will become increasingly available to the Arabs and usable against Israel. Unless the end of the peace-making process is defined in advance, the other side will not accept the sound idea of peace by stages.

Here the questions being raised explicitly or implicitly by General Harkabi and some others in Israel’s Peace Now movement become urgent. Can Israel postpone facing the Palestinian issue indefinitely? (I am not referring to the stages by which Palestinian demands could be accommodated but to the issue itself.) Can there be a real peace without removing the causes of the conflict and is there not strong evidence that for Israel’s main adversaries the fundamental causes are no longer the existence of Israel but the grievances arising from the occupation of the conquered territories and from the claims of the Palestinian diaspora? Can Israelis deny to the Palestinians the right to self-determination that they have exercised themselves? And if not, can they go on assuming that their survival requires blocking the creation of any Palestinian state—as opposed to a Palestinian state that would be incapable of harming Israel? And if the latter is feasible, doesn’t Israel have an incentive to cooperate with states such as Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, all of whom have good reasons also to be fearful of a Palestinian state that is militarily strong or aggressive?

One thing should be clear. The US-Israeli alliance Safran calls for can be restored only by a drastic separation between Israel’s legitimate security concerns and its ideological claims to political control of Arab lands, claims which the US finds wholly illegitimate. After years devoted mainly to building up its own strength and reacting to the initiatives of others, Israel must seize the initiative itself if it is to turn the end of the “special” relationship with Washington into an opportunity, to avoid being increasingly squeezed by the new US-Arab connection, and to establish a new relationship with its neighbors. After all, it is next to them that Israel must live, and the growing dependency on America in recent years has become not only an embarrassment for Israel, but an alibi as well. Israel counts on the Americans to provide not only what Kissinger called the “external input” for peace but also the weapons for war; not only the aid for daily economic survival but help in deflecting Arab threats or intemperate peace proposals.

This dependency is, in the long run, irreconcilable with Zionist ideals, which have always stressed self-reliance. It is likely, at best, to lead not to “real peace” with the Arabs, but to a kind of sullen coexistence during which each party will deal with the other only through the White House, an outcome no more desirable for the US than it is for Israel. Kissinger’s contradictory promises to the Egyptians and to the Israelis during the 1975 disengagement negotiations show how confusing US intervention can be and why an Israeli initiative would be to America’s as well as to Israel’s advantage. Sadat, by addressing himself directly to Israel and bypassing Washington, actually offered a better chance for the settlement which the US wanted than did the foundering American mediation attempt that preceded, and partly provoked, Sadat’s move. (It seems to have taken the administration several days to realize this.)


Nevertheless, the chances for such an initiative are even dimmer than three years ago—despite Sadat’s visit. In 1975, as Quandt notes, such a policy would have required “a strong Israeli government backed by a broad public consensus.” It did not exist then. It does not exist now. Begin, caught between his lifelong beliefs and a sudden opportunity to become Israel’s peacemaker, has turned out to be neither prophet nor statesman, but seems a bumbling somnambulist. He has retreated just far enough to antagonize a good many of his former Likud partisans, yet his authority over his ministers has not been sufficient to prevent them from pursuing separate courses. His insistence on Sinai settlements, his refusal to apply Resolution 242 to the West Bank, his overheated Lebanon expedition—all delaying or diverting the parties from ever reaching the Palestinian heart of the matter—have irritated not only Israel’s foreign partners but a large section of the Israeli public as well.4

And yet the other political forces have not been effective in their criticism. General Yadin’s group, DASH, cannot decide between taking a clear position and tasting the delights of power. The Labor Party has disagreed with Begin’s plans, yet its own seem aimed more at reminding the voters of the party’s existence than at addressing the fundamental issues raised by Sadat. If one remembers that the Labor Party lost seats not only to DASH but also to the Likud, and that the latter’s strength lies with the demographically growing portion of the population—the Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, and the USSR—one understands such prudence. One cannot help remembering other multiparty parliamentary systems that seemed fine when all was well but bred stalemate and cynicism in times of crisis. Remember the Fourth Republic, or look at Italy today.

Another factor reminds one of the Fourth Republic during the Algerian war: there may be no consensus behind Begin, but there is general opposition to substantial concessions over the Palestinian issue, notwithstanding the growth of the peace movement. The latter is as much an expression of disgust with the leading political parties as a revolt against the prospect of an eternal state of siege interrupted by inconclusive wars. But the very desire of its leaders to stay clear of politics, and the division of its members over possible solutions, have led it to try to rally the greatest number of people behind a simple slogan: peace now. This is both a strength and a weakness—a strength in so far as it makes clear the intensity of the desire for a radical change of attitude, a weakness in so far as the slogan allows the movement to evade the very tough political choices which “peace now” would require, and this gives to critics the opportunity to denounce it as irresponsible. “Peace now” is a generous and courageous expression of frustration and aspiration. But it does not yet constitute a real challenge to the paralysis of Israel’s spirit manifest since 1973.

Indeed, a student of France in the 1930s cannot help being struck by some psychological, although not political, similarities with Israel today. The French refused to see that a monster was roaming at will in their world—because confronting him might have meant a new war, which they felt they could not afford and for which they had no stomach. (Their distaste for it led them, in 1935-1936, to exaggerate the risk, and in 1937-1938, to exaggerate Nazi might.) Thus, preferring appeasement to war, they had to pretend that the costs of the former were far smaller than the costs of another conflict. And they got both appeasement and war.

The Israeli public seems to prefer the risks of immobility or even of a failure of Sadat’s initiative to the risks entailed by a peace settlement on terms acceptable to the Arabs. It fears that Israel would let down its guard and risk eventual destruction while its foes would build up their arms—and it therefore has to pretend that the risks of immobility are few, or easy to master, or even likely to lead to better opportunities later on.

The irony, of course, is that the very precedent of appeasement of Hitler hardens the Israelis’ resistance to a settlement which they see as appeasing the Arabs, and strengthens their tendency to overestimate the cost of what they fear—a “bad” settlement—and to underestimate the costs of doing too little too late. There is, to be sure, a vast difference between failing to meet a threat and failing to meet an opportunity, but both arise from fear. Most of the French feared a new war above all—more than Hitler’s Germany. The Israelis fear Arab revanchism above all—more than they fear the effects of a continuing “no peace, no war” situation, more even than the risk of a new war, because they think that they can handle these situations which they have known for thirty years, as long as America doesn’t abandon them. But they are not sure they could handle the kind of peace which Sadat—and the Brookings Institution—seem to require of them. Somehow, they cannot bring themselves to believe that “real peace” is possible: a settlement would all too easily become a trap. Paradoxically, and sadly, they have come to see such a peace as more dangerous than an evidently deteriorating and potentially explosive status quo.

Such fear expresses itself in a welter of contradictions and evasions. The US is simultaneously accused of breaking its commitments and summoned to coerce Sadat into making a separate peace. Proof of the PLO’s determination to destroy Israel is seen in its refusal to amend its charter and recognize Resolution 242. Yet one also hears people argue that such recognition would be meaningless anyhow since one can’t trust the Arabs’ words. Sadat’s solemn recognition of Israel’s right to exist did not bring about a fundamental change of policy in Israel.

To be sure, Sadat’s initiative had a fundamental flaw. Two policies make sense: either a separate peace, or a comprehensive settlement process in which all parties take part and put their cards on the table. Sadat’s attempt to shortcut the latter was bound to run into trouble, in so far as he had no mandate from the other Arab states, or the PLO. He appeared to ask Israel to make real concessions to him on issues such as the West Bank or Jerusalem, in exchange for hypothetical concessions from other Arabs whom he did not represent and who, in fact, stayed away or denounced him as a traitor. Still, the gamble might well have worked if Israel had been willing not to deliver but merely to promise enough concessions to the other Arabs, in exchange for security guarantees, to make it worth their while to enter the picture.

This has not been the case. Israeli officials have shown little interest in indicating which security guarantees they would consider sufficient to allow them to leave the occupied territories. The hard-liners among the Israelis now turn their resentment on Sadat, accusing him of refusing a proffered separate peace and of insisting on ultimate Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Begin’s critics seek a formula capable of keeping Sadat’s initiative alive, yet mild enough not to commit Israel to a large-scale withdrawal from the West Bank; as if the revival of past schemes for partition or joint Jordanian-Israeli sovereignty had a better chance now than did the attempts of the past eleven years to draw King Hussein out of his shelter. And yet, anything more—even the Assuan formula which merely grants the Palestinians the “right to participate in the determination of their future,” or the mention of their legitimate rights, or the promise to solve “the Palestinian problem in all its aspects”—is feared as the beginning of the end: a fateful step toward a Palestinian state dominated by the PLO.

Many Israelis will tell you that they prefer a Jordanian solution, even if the Palestinians should some day seize control of such a “restored” Jordan, and yet they hesitate to offer Hussein a return of the territories he lost in 1967, precisely because his future is not safe. (Whether Hussein is at all eager to extend his control over the hornets’ nest of a West Bank obviously eager for self-rule remains unclear in the face of Israeli reticence.) Is the frequently expressed preference of Israelis for a “Jordanian solution” a reality, or is it an excuse for keeping control while blaming Jordan for its alleged passivity? Why not grant Sadat’s desire for a vague declaration of principles, after which Israel would have time to negotiate conditions and exceptions? If you ask this question you will hear fears that any such statement would be a snare, that any promise, no matter how prudently hedged, is a commitment, that any ambiguity will be interpreted at Israel’s expense, and that the only security lies in control.

Behind such fears, one finds a conviction that Arab hostility, except in Egypt’s case, is simply implacable, and an unwillingness to accept the idea that Israeli behavior could affect Arab attitudes. Sadat’s initiative is interpreted as the result of Egypt’s domestic crisis and military weakness, not as, to some degree at least, the outcome of a successful mutual disengagement. The hostility of the PLO is seen as permanent and monolithic. The volatility of Arab states and policies is used as an argument against putting too much trust in concessions and agreements, not as proof of the fact that they can be changed by external forces and actions.

Is this conviction, this fatalism, merely the product of a thirty years’ siege? Is there not something deeper, more elusive, and disturbing, which cannot be faced openly because it is so hard to accept? Is there not a kind of self-doubt about the purposefulness, the cohesion, the moral fiber of Israel, should the heroic stance, the imperative of fighting a hostile set of neighbors, the desire to be an exemplary democracy-at-war, suddenly subside? And yet, the costs of defense for Israeli society are huge. They are admirably analyzed by Safran, who speaks of “the militarization of the civilian.”

Isn’t there also a nagging, repressed, denied yet persistent sense of guilt about the Palestinian Arabs, and particularly about the occupation of the West Bank? However mild it may be by comparison with colonial rule or with other military conquests, it is an occupation, i.e., it consists of arbitrary acts and insults the pride and dignity of the people under alien rule. Survivors in quest of dignity and pride, heirs to centuries of dispersion and persecution, the Israelis cannot admit that they have put themselves—or that the Arabs have trapped them into putting themselves—into the classic and detested position of masters. So they must deny that they are real occupiers, present themselves as victims of their opponents’ intransigence, and see in their enemies’ charges and demands the very proof of their foes’ wickedness. Or else they must justify the occupation by their needs for security and survival, and thus make of their staying in place (or in some of the places) a matter of life and death—which risks turning their view of Palestinian enmity into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Are there, then, no doves, except for those in the peace movement (many of whom might not turn out so dovish if concrete proposals had to be drafted by them)? The tragedy lies in the fact that most Israelis are split psychologically. There are few consistent doves, and not too many fanatical hawks (although, as the Gush Emunim has proven, they can be fiercely influential). Most Israelis have deep longings for peace, yet either hesitate to spell out, for themselves or publicly, the implications of their desire, or else also want conditions incompatible with peace. Most of them are immensely proud of their nation’s accomplishments against formidable odds, yet, deep down, feel somehow caught or confined in the cage of their small country, surrounded by the huge Arab world, trapped by their own conquests: pride and anxiety, hope and pessimism coexist.

While one should never exaggerate the free scope or minimize the drawbacks of great leaders capable of resolving such contradictions, the absence of such leadership in Israel today leaves one with little hope that the near future will bring more than immobility disguised as timid new proposals under US pressure, or political crises without fundamental shifts. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that in a country which expresses all sorts of truths, especially bitter ones, in jokes, one of the latest should be that a recent survey of public opinion found only 11 percent of the population believing that Sadat had actually come to Jerusalem.


If, as is likely, the negotiations between Egypt and Israel fail—notwithstanding their resumption to consider a new Egyptian peace plan, already rejected by the Israeli government—the United States will be faced with a difficult set of choices. Sadat is not likely to turn to the Russians: he seems to have burned his bridges, and they cannot do for him what he had hoped to obtain either from the US or from his dramatic trip to Israel—bring Israel to the peace table. But he could once again try to achieve a common Arab front—there have been many reconciliations before. He could denounce Israeli intransigence and turn to the US with another show of friendly blackmail: either you do at last what you have postponed until now—i.e., force Israel to make the concessions it has refused so far—or else we shall have no alternative but to prepare for war, and you shall have no alternative to arming us, or alienating your best friends in the Arab world.

None of this would be in America’s interest. We cannot break the Israelis’ will or the deadlock under Arab duress. We cannot increase arms sales to the “confrontation states” (or to Saudi Arabia) only. We cannot risk a rupture with the “moderate” Arabs, however much they would hesitate before and suffer from such a break. In other words, if things go so far, our diplomacy will be in serious trouble.

There is another possibility. The US, having had its hand forced by Israel’s default, and trying to head off predictable Arab demands for decisive action, would then do what several American statesmen and academics (including Brzezinski before his entry into the government) had recommended in the past: propose its own plan. There were good reasons to avoid such a move as long as the parties’ positions were fundamentally incompatible (as in the late 1960s), or as long as there was hope in getting them closer by small steps, or while one could believe that direct negotiations with small American involvement, except as a guarantor of the outcome, might succeed.

The Carter administration, in its first months, seemed to be moving toward an American plan along the lines of the Brookings plan, but its pronouncements came out piecemeal—a sure way of obscuring balance and of upsetting all parties. It soon got bogged down—not in the substance but in the procedure of a settlement—over the issue of Palestinian representation at Geneva, the composition of an Arab delegation, the method of negotiation, and the agenda. To be sure, procedure has a way of prefiguring substance, but—as the wrangles of last fall demonstrated—to begin with procedure is to put the cart before the horse.

It will now be necessary for Washington to indicate at last, clearly and comprehensively, what it deems right in the region, to invite the principal parties concerned to negotiate a settlement based on its plan, and to provide the necessary carrots and sticks to help bring about the necessary agreements. As long as there is no comprehensive plan fully endorsed by the president of the United States, there is not enough reason for Israel to listen to American exhortations. And while opposition from American Jews and their allies can be expected, its chances of derailing American policy will be small if the plan is both fair and politically prudent, and if it follows a fiasco largely created by Israel’s political failures.

This is not the place to suggest a detailed plan, but three points must be mentioned. The first concerns the Soviet Union. The Soviet-American communiqué of last year could be justified as a step in a procedural ballet that got nowhere. But if we switch to a substantive proposal, there is no reason to try to enlist Soviet support before making it: we might not get it, the attempt would increase domestic and Israeli resistance, and Soviet capacity for disruption is not high at present. This does not mean that the Russians should be excluded either from the process of negotiations or from the “arrangements and guarantees following a successful negotiation,” as the Brookings report recognized. It would mean only that we would have learned the lessons drawn by Quandt about the Soviet’s relation to the region and heeded one imperative of prudence.

The second point concerns American guarantees. That an American commitment to the survival of Israel will remain essential is clear. That a mutual security pact best serves the interests of either the US or Israel is not. Does Israel want to become involved in America’s world ventures—or even merely to underwrite American military commitments in the rest of the Middle East? Or is its best chance for the future to stay clear of great power rivalries, as Nahum Goldmann has often suggested? Will Israel want to tie its hands in matters of self-defense, for instance against terrorist raids, by requesting American permission to take action against every serious incident?

Conversely, is it in America’s interest to be seen as the privileged ally and partner of Israel, at a time when American policy will have to follow the “dual orientation” described above, and need a bit of distance from both Israel and the Arabs in order to keep some freedom from constant manipulation? Ultimately, the best guarantees for Israel will be, first, its own continuing military strength (which will require continuing aid), as well as the controlled demilitarization of neighboring zones under Arab sovereignty, and perhaps an over-all limitation of arms supplies to the area. And second, the creation of a network of common interests with the Arab states.

The third point concerns the Palestinian problem. It is at the heart of the matter, and yet, as Quandt recognizes, a peace settlement cannot begin with the Palestinians: “they are neither strong enough nor well enough organized to take the first steps toward peace with Israel,” nor do most of the Arab states involved in the peace process want to put the PLO at the center of it—not to mention Israel. Can the circle be squared? And can Israel’s fears be stilled at the same time?

Obviously, the American plan will have to provide for a solution in stages. But the end of the process will have to be indicated at the start, and it cannot be anything but the unfettered exercise of the right of self-determination. American officials who reject Ian Smith’s “internal settlement” for ignoring the black nationalist groups based in neighboring countries cannot come out for a precooked solution in which West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians hand-picked by Israel, Egypt, and Jordan would sharply restrict the choices open to the inhabitants of the occupied territories—for instance by ruling out a Palestinian state—and exclude the Palestinian diaspora.

The purposes of the transition period ought to be precisely to allow for the free emergence of a representative Arab leadership in these areas, and to promote negotiations between them and the neighboring countries on the specific choices that will be offered to the inhabitants, and on the return of all those exiled Palestinians who will be willing to accept these terms. A free choice does not mean either that a Palestinian state should be the only option or that such a state would emerge. But if one of the choices is a Palestinian state along the lines suggested by Walid Khalidi,5 and if that choice is accepted, first by most of the PLO, and finally by the voters, not only would the consequences be far less disastrous for Israel than most Israelis now assume, but there would develop a joint Israeli-Palestinian interest against “rejectionist” fronts and terrorists, who would be a major threat to the security of both states.

All of this will take time. But the essential point is clear: there will be no “real peace” without a solution of the Palestinian problem, and there can be no such solution by fiat, by treating the Palestinians—as other Arabs as well as Israelis have done—as political footballs, children, or objects. Here, American interests and morality for once coincide. To be sure, America as well as Israel has a major stake in preventing the emergence of the kind of terroristic Palestinian state aided by Moscow (with or without Cubans) that would sow war and revolution throughout the Middle East. However, the best chance of preventing this is not to help prolong the very occupation that increasingly frustrates and radicalizes not merely the PLO but the inhabitants of the occupied territories: it is to recognize their right to form a nation if they so wish, as long as it accepts Israel’s right to exist and meets Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

Nothing is more dangerous, generally, than a big power’s conviction that it knows better than a lesser state what is best for that state. But in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the US has no better choice than to pursue its own interest in settlement. By doing so in a way that tries to reconcile the rightful demands of all parties, it may well serve Israel’s long-term interests as well.

July 13, 1978

This Issue

August 17, 1978