Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon; drawing by David Levine

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 Israel and themselves. Everyone thus expected some gesture of “even-handedness.” If the new American initiative peters out in a few weeks or months, it will be such a gesture, but all the signs are that more than a gesture is intended. The American government will likely try to carry out its plan during the next two years, until the end of the Reagan administration.

The debates that have already begun within both the Jewish and the Arab camps can only become sharper and angrier because the American initiative has forced into the open fundamental questions about the Jewish state. This has been immediately apparent in Israel, and, to an unexpected degree, among its most committed Jewish supporters elsewhere. Menachem Begin has never disguised his ideological commitment to the “undivided land of Israel,” and he has acted consistently to defend this principle, in peace and in war. At Camp David he agreed to exchange the whole of the Sinai for peace with Egypt and, as he believed, for Sadat’s indulgence of Begin’s need to retain the West Bank and Gaza.

When the last strip of the Sinai, including the city of Yamit, was evacuated last April, angry and even violent scenes took place before the television cameras. It was widely held in Israel that Menachem Begin had orchestrated these events in order to demonstrate to the world how painful was the dismantling of an Israeli settlement; to the commentators in the Israeli press he seemed to be asserting, in Israel as well as abroad, that the government would never again abandon Jewish settlers. All of the present and future Israeli settlements on the West Bank were thus taken to be inalienable. By the fourth or fifth day of the war in Lebanon, it was correctly understood in Israel that one of the prime objectives of the invasion was to bring about a military defeat of the PLO that would prevent it from taking part in any negotiations over the future of the West Bank.


It was, in fact, an open secret in Israel in June and July that as Israel approached Beirut from the south, General Sharon expected the Christian Phalange army to join the war and to deal decisively with the PLO fighters in Beirut. But the Phalange was deterred, in part for the very reasons that were to keep the Israelis from storming West Beirut in August—the probable high cost in casualties of house-to-house fighting in narrow streets against heavily armed PLO forces. Perhaps even more important, Bashir Gemayel, the head of the Phalange, wanted to be elected president of Lebanon and he had to improve his brutal image. He could not be seen simply as the instrument of the Israelis, or as the unrelenting enemy of the Moslems, or even of the PLO.

His assassination, together with that of some of his top commanders, left a power vacuum in his own ranks. At the invitation of the Israeli occupiers, Phalange elements went into the two Palestinian camps on September 16 and 17 and took part in the murderous horrors that were committed there. (They may have been helped by Major Haddad’s troops, some of whom are reported to have made their way into the camps, not to mention obscure Lebanese terrorist elements, who, according to some Lebanese reports, wanted to destroy the possibility of any kind of order in Lebanon.)

In advance of a thorough and unbiased investigation, it seems fair to say from the partial evidence available that the horror in the camps was mainly the work of Phalange elements—perhaps not controlled by their weakened high command—who were bent on revenge for the assassination of-Bashir Gemayel, for the slaughters of Christians by the Palestinians in the Lebanese town of Damur, as well as for other horrors in the seemingly never-ending cycle of murder and retaliation in Lebanon. Apart from revenge, and inflicting sheer terror, the aim of this most recent assault was to make an end of the last vestige of PLO power in Beirut. But from reports I have heard, the attack may have had another purpose as well—to add to the fears of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon so that they might start to stampede from the country.

If this were a motive of the Phalange, it would have coincided with the vision of General Sharon and, ultimately, of Prime Minister Begin. In Israel last June I heard from several well-connected sources of Sharon’s hopes that the Lebanese war would start a flight of Palestinians to the eastern borders and, inevitably, to Jordan. The Israeli troops that took over West Beirut after the murder of Bashir Gemayel and let the Christians into the camps had heard again and again that not one Palestinian fighter could be allowed to remain in Beirut and that both Lebanon and Israel would be better off without the Palestinians. The grand purpose of the war in Lebanon was to eliminate the PLO, but it was also a war that seemed intended to intimidate the Palestinians on whom the PLO drew for recruits and support.

This was the background for the disastrous behavior of the Israeli command on September 16 and 17. What happened had the earmarks of a pogrom. The czarist police and army had stood by, carelessly or purposely, while mobs of Muzhiks worked off their murderous instincts on Jews. Now Jews were the cops, or worse. Sharon’s army sealed off the camps, planned the entry of the Phalange militia, failed to intervene after Israeli soldiers and journalists knew—and high officials had been told—that slaughter was taking place. Begin and Sharon then compounded their government’s disgrace—first Begin, by righteously denying all responsibility, then Sharon, by a blustering self-defense that fell short of the truth. Their fixed guide was their view of the PLO and the Palestinians in the camps—there was little they would not do to keep them from Judea and Samaria, the inalienable land of Israel since Abraham’s time.

Begin has thus followed his star without deviation, although he has changed tactics. The ideological issue of the “undivided land of Israel” had been largely muted for two reasons: the Camp David accords left the West Bank under Israeli control, while the final negotiations on the question of its future sovereignty were put off for five years; and Israel’s supporters and friends abroad, especially in America, largely ignored the increasing number of settlements in the West Bank. They busied themselves making the case for Israel’s security against PLO terrorism and emphasizing the dangers of putting sophisticated arms in the hands of the Arab states. The new American initiative has now made it clear, even to those who have preferred not to see, that if the forces of heavenly angels themselves were deployed to protect an Israel that had lost sovereignty over the West Bank, Menachem Begin would nonetheless stand before God and demand that he keep his promise to return the whole of their homeland to the Jews.


Dissociation from both the style and the substance of Begin’s policy, once rarely made public in the Jewish establishment, therefore emerged rapidly after Reagan’s speech on September 1 in places as surprising as the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee—the pro-Israel lobby itself—the B’nai B’rith, and the American Jewish Committee. The spokesman from the Public Affairs Committee later changed his views; but most American Jews, even in the established organizations, clearly preferred pursuing Reagan’s plan for negotiations to defiance. Begin’s own rhetoric meanwhile grew more shrill. He declared that the new initiative is an American effort to push him from office in favor of the much more moderate Labor party, and that he is not Allende. When Shimon Peres, the leader of the opposition, accepted the Reagan initiative as a basis for discussion, his Likud critics, led by the prime minister, came very near to accusing him of plotting with the Americans during his visit to Washington in August, and of being prepared to be “their man in Jerusalem.” But Israel’s Labor party, despite its own internal divisions, has always stood for some form of “territorial compromise” on the West Bank, and it is no more ready than Begin to dismantle all the existing settlements, some of which were created by Labor governments.

If Begin’s fury sometimes seems out of control, there are several reasons for this. As is now apparent, the fall of General Haig was, for him, a great defeat. George Shultz spoke on Sunday, September 12, in New York to a United Jewish Appeal audience which was attentive and divided. Haig appeared before the same group two days later and made headlines by attacking the new policy as weakening America’s most powerful friend in the Middle East and as wrong-headed in asking for a stop to West Bank settlements. There is no reason to believe that Begin and Sharon shared their invasion plans in June with Haig, but it was clear then, and it is even clearer now, that they had reason to expect gratitude for the strategic benefits they were bringing to America and, in return, indulgence for their plans for the West Bank.

Begin’s second reason for anger is to be found in Israel itself. The opposition now has an issue. The infighting within the Labor party may blunt its attack, but a national debate has begun. It may not lead to a quick Labor victory, but one question now dominates political discussions in Israel: is the West Bank worth the huge costs being paid for it, including the blood of continued war, divisions among Jews, a world press reaction so bad that it is helping the unprepossessing Arafat look better, and, not least, open disapproval in Washington? Now that Reagan, in the aftermath of the Beirut massacre, is seriously demanding that the Israelis leave Beirut and Lebanon itself, Israel’s government could, and should, change fairly soon. Begin has thrived on being able to call his critics illegitimate, but at this moment these critics include a probable majority of American Jews, while over half of Israel was found in a recent poll (taken after the withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut and just before the American initiative was made) to be in favor of the return of territory for peace. Some of Begin’s own supporters in Israel have now joined the opposition in denouncing Israel’s failure to prevent—and evasions about—the Beirut killings. This moral indignation will have political consequences.

Begin is now confronted with a seemingly impossible problem, made even more acute by the massacres. He has to prove in the United States that “greater” Israel is a good for which Americans should be willing to bear heavy political and diplomatic costs; and he has to show that this is better for America’s long-term interests than a West Bank that would be demilitarized—as Shultz has promised—although not under Israel’s immediate control.

This debate may, of course, be deflected, and even if the Americans do not themselves get tired, the signals that they send may be misread, or misused. The day-to-day business of helping Israel with money and arms will and must continue. But if the supply from America is not to some degree cut back, then the tough-minded political experts in Israel may deduce that Americans do not really stand by the Reagan plan, for they have put no teeth in it. If the supply is obstructed by some contrived slowdown, then Israel and its supporters, including “doves” who otherwise oppose Begin, will coalesce instantly, claiming that such pressure is unfair and dangerous, both to Israel and to America, because it weakens Israel’s ability to survive in an unfriendly region.

Nonetheless, after the slaughter in the Palestinian camps in Beirut, America’s leverage and responsibility have both increased. Israel may be more defiant for a while, but it is now much more difficult for it to act unilaterally on the Palestinian question. The Americans pulled out of Beirut much too soon, and took the French and Italians with them, without real assurance that the Lebanese army was in control. By doing so they acquired increased responsibility for the safety and future of the Palestinians. Thus Reagan had no legitimate alternative to saying, on September 20, that he would send back US troops.

In late September, as I write, seventy-five F-16s, which have long been promised to Israel, have not yet been formally released through notification to Congress. Israel will eventually get the planes. But if this is done in a way that appears to offer proof that the Americans are not really willing to bring pressure on Israel in order to carry out their plan, that would be a major mistake. Reagan and Shultz have staked their prestige on this initiative and they hope, in two years, to have laid the foundation for settling the main issues of the Palestinian question, both the future of the West Bank and that of the Palestinian diaspora, especially those Palestinians in refugee camps. Such an achievement would overshadow the one at Camp David, provide Reagan with a place in diplomatic history, and make Shultz a central political figure. More important, in the present view in Washington, it would make America’s friends in the region, both Israel and the “moderate” Arab states, more secure in the long run and free of the threat, and need, of war.

Reagan and Shultz have been no less bold in their approach to the Arabs. In none of the documents that define the new initiative, including the State Department’s published “talking points,” did the American government discuss either the future of the PLO or of the Palestinians living outside Israel and the West Bank. These, and not the future of the West Bank as such, are, however, the urgent issues for the Arabs. In Morocco, the leaders of the Arab governments affirmed on September 9 that the PLO was the sole representative of the Palestinian national interest and insisted again on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their homeland. Nonetheless, the Fez declaration was described by Arab diplomats as a movement toward the American peace plan.

On September 13, King Hussein spoke on British television and made his support for the Reagan plan fairly explicit. He reiterated the Arab formula that the PLO is the designated representative of the Palestinian cause, but insisted that the PLO is “a transition,” that the Palestinians will eventually “present themselves to the world in a different way” and that he expected to be “heavily involved” in the discussions on the West Bank. Hussein is, of course, a master of survival and ambiguity (in his case they go together), but it is possible to discern without great difficulty what his real position and interests are. Hussein also certainly knows what is on the minds of the makers of the new American policy, for Nicholas Veliotes, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs and a former ambassador to Jordan, made a secret trip to brief him on the Reagan proposal and to get his assent to it before it was announced.

Hussein has good reason to like Arafat no better than he does Sharon. Both Hussein and Arafat remember September 1970 (“Black September”) when, in order to save Jordan from what was soon to happen in Lebanon—the takeover of part of the country by the PLO for its domain—Hussein decimated the Palestinian fighters and forced the survivors out. In the recent dispersal of the Palestinians from Beirut, Hussein took the smallest number. Even though he kissed them one by one as they came off the plane, he had this relative handful quickly disarmed.

Hussein said on September 20 that he was willing to discuss with the PLO a federation of Palestine and Jordan that would be approved in a referendum. But he certainly does not want or need a semi-state on the West Bank that would be run by the PLO, although nominally under his royal authority. What he needs even less is additional hundreds of thousands of Palestinians returning to the West Bank. The likeliest candidates are the 400,000 or more Palestinians in the camps in Lebanon, perhaps the 250,000 in Syria, and the fighters from Beirut now scattered throughout the Arab world. The approximately 380,000 oil workers, highly trained technicians, and professionals in Kuwait and the other rich Persian Gulf states will not be better off if they return to Ramallah or Hebron. For those in the refugee camps, especially in the aftermath of the war in Lebanon, the move to Jordan might seem appealing. If their presence is added to that of the more than one million Palestinians who are already just about a majority in Jordan, and the 1.15 million on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the situation will, in Hussein’s view, be beyond his control.1

One cannot imagine that Hussein has gone as far as he has in accepting the American initiative unless he has at least some general assurance that the American plan will not result in his being flooded with Palestinians and then deposed. What Hussein knows cannot be a secret from the rest of the Arabs, notwithstanding their show of Arab unity in the Fez declaration. No doubt most of the signers believed that the Reagan initiative would eventually founder and that, meanwhile, there was nothing to be gained by denouncing it—while also giving nothing away, not even the formal recognition of Israel’s existence. But the hardliners among the Arabs, especially the Syrians, probably took the very view that even Israeli moderates fear: let the Americans first separate the West Bank from Israel if they can, and put it in Arab hands. Soon to follow would be demands for complete repatriation of the Palestinian refugees, for true sovereignty, including the end of any initial demilitarization, and for the installation of the PLO, not only by votes, but also by the elimination of its various opponents. This is a catalogue of Hussein’s fears as well, but he now seems more confident than he did before the Reagan initiative. In an interview on September 21, he indicated that he was eager to pursue negotiations on Reagan’s proposal, but not with the Begin government. There is, at least, a fundamental identity of interest between Jordan and Israel that the status of the West Bank should not be changed in a way that could endanger either country.

Ronald Reagan has said nearly as much, not through emissaries, but rather in a public declaration. He added a paragraph to his speech on Wednesday, September 1, saying that he had no intention of asking Israel to return to its narrowest, least defensible border. This assurance of security for Israel has been reiterated by both the president and the secretary of state. It is not plausible that the American proposal is intended to soften either Jordan or Israel for eventual PLO control of the West Bank; the Americans know that such an outcome is what each finds most threatening. It is all the more certain that the PLO is not well regarded among the anticommunists in Washington, because of its links to the Soviet Union and to its surrogate in the Middle East, the Syrians. Moreover the accumulating accounts of the PLO’s harsh control of the parts of Lebanon it occupied have been cautionary for officials in Washington; they have no intention of repeating this experience elsewhere.

Reagan could win his argument with Begin hands down, even in Israel, if he simply said publicly what he has strongly implied, by silence and indirection, about the need to exclude the PLO and the Palestinian diaspora from the West Bank. He cannot, however, come any nearer to being explicit. Except for Jordan, most of the Arab governments would have to oppose a policy that explicitly separated the future of the displaced Palestinians and of the PLO from the issue of the West Bank—and they would do so not just to save face. In their reluctance to accept the PLO fighters from Beirut, even temporarily, the Arab governments have proved that they would feel endangered by militant Palestinians within their own borders. They prefer a solution to the West Bank that promises them relief from the Palestinians at the expense of Israel and Jordan. Any premature assent by Arab states to the dispersal of some of the Palestinians and their settlement else-where than on the West Bank could create immediate conflict and even terrorism within the Arab countries themselves.

On the other hand, it is precisely assurances of protection against Palestinian pressure that Israel, even its moderates, require. Reagan’s oblique, implied, but unstated promise to keep a PLO government and most of the Palestinian diaspora out of the West Bank is at the heart of the issue. The essential question is, do the Americans mean to keep such a promise, and even if they do, could they possibly deliver on it?

Both the Israeli moderates, led by Shimon Peres, and the less forthright King Hussein are willing to take the chance that the US can make the promise stick. And Hussein could not have gone as far as he did if he did not have some encouragement from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other moderate Arab nations. For both Israeli and Arab moderates the American initiative has several virtues. It would deal with the two problems that have blocked a solution for the West Bank: assuring Israel’s security if it gives up the territory, and assuring Jordan that it will not be overwhelmed by a PLO state into which hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees would flow. The initiative still offers Arab moderates hope that the Palestinian question can be solved, even at inconvenience to themselves, so that it will not plague their grandchildren. With the West Bank under Jordanian rule, and the PLO fighters sequestered under the control of the Arab countries, the problems of the diaspora Palestinians could be dealt with gradually.

For the Israelis, the reality of Lebanon after the war is even more sobering. With Bashir Gemayel’s assassination their main hope of political stability in Lebanon under auspices favorable to them is gone. Arafat, in military defeat, holds the center of the stage, even at the Vatican. Israel has no assurance that occupying Lebanon for a winter, or for a year or two—if the US does not insist on withdrawal—will yield it better results than the Syrians achieved in their years of dominance in Beirut.

The ultimate aim of the new American initiative is to shore up stability in the Middle East through an exchange, a trade, in which the West Bank is detached from both Israel and the PLO; the problem of most of the refugees would then be dealt with, partially at least, by the absorption of some of them into Lebanon, the dispersal of others to other Arab countries, and by the prospect of aid as recompense for giving up the right of return. This is not an ideal solution, but it could well look better to the most concerned parties as their alternatives turn sour. To stay the course, the United States must not only split Israeli and Jewish opinion, as it has already done, in the hope that the government after Begin will be reasonable, but also split the Arab leaders who will eventually have to face up to, and disappoint, both many Palestinian refugees and the PLO as it is now organized.

Reagan may be in a position to do this. He is not likely to be a candidate for reelection, and even if he is, he may indeed win, rather than lose, Jewish votes if he persists in confronting Begin in the name of reasonableness. His government anticipated the main lines of its new policy before his speech of September 1. The United States helped Israel out of the quagmire of Beirut: it pushed unwilling Arabs into accepting PLO fighters. In Jordan, Hussein made clear his own terms for absorbing them: he would accept only those who were Jordanian citizens and would live under Jordan’s laws. What Reagan has proposed, and already begun to act out, is a classic and moderate “Zionist” solution for the Palestinian question. Let there be a peaceful homeland in the West Bank for the Palestinians, with hundreds of thousands of supporters abroad who are full citizens of the countries of their dispersion but who look warmly toward their “national center.”

Such full citizenship for the displaced Palestinians in Arab countries is hard now for anyone to visualize, especially in view of what has happened in Lebanon. Hussein would face a great challenge in making the West Bank and Gaza a Palestinian homeland although, with many Palestinians in his government, he is now in a better position to provide a fair and workable administration than he was before 1967. A Time magazine poll on the West Bank last spring showed that 86 percent of those questioned wanted a West Bank state run by the PLO. But according to recent reports from the West Bank, the reception there of Reagan’s proposal has not been notably hostile. A Palestinian editor commented, “It may not be what we have been struggling for, but you have to be a realist.”2 This, I suspect, may reflect the attitude of many West Bank Arabs, especially if the prospects for a deal with Hussein seem strong. What the Americans are counting on is that the hard interests and the financial resources of the moderate Arab nations will come into play to give the US initiative momentum once serious negotiations become a reality.

For the moment, with attention focused on the crisis in Lebanon, the initiative of Reagan and Shultz seems derailed or at least shifted to a siding, but it is even more necessary and urgent now. The United States took a difficult and historic opening step in early September toward settling the Palestinian question so that both Israel and Jordan might be safe. It must now add the Palestinians themselves to America’s list of worries and try to ensure that they are safe from the hatred of all the factions in an all too unfriendly Middle East. Those who claim that the Palestinian question can be ignored as irrelevant to American interests do not understand America’s responsibilities as a world power whose vital concerns in the Middle East demand that Palestinian claims not fester indefinitely. The Palestinians have been the target of the Lebanese war yet they remain, even in military defeat, a source of embarrassment, fear, and potential political instability to all of America’s friends in the region. The United States has practiced a policy of avoiding, or discounting, the Palestinian question for three decades, in concert with Israel’s policy of “gaining time.” The failure of these endeavors is now clear for all to see, except those who really want to justify annexing the West Bank against any odds. Such counsels are good neither for Israel nor for America. The repeated explosions in Lebanon and the intransigence of Begin and Sharon and the Arab leaders at Fez prove that neither by war nor by diplomacy among themselves are the parties to the conflict likely to solve their own problems. The US cannot avoid going further into this thicket by asserting diplomatic leadership and putting pressure on all the conflicting parties.

Reagan and Shultz have not even begun to face the intractable problem of Jerusalem except for a broad hint that Israel might allow some official Arab presence in an undivided city. They may yet founder on unexpected and unforeseeable disasters. But they are being bold, even intransigent, in the cause of moderation, and, after the bloody years of hopeless impasse, that is a venture that deserves every chance.

September 22

This Issue

October 21, 1982