Peace . . . civilized man's most elusive quest ... is a matter of time, circumstance, strategy and events. The convergence of these elements can make brilliant strategists out of merely competent diplomats and great statesmen out of good politicians. These elements come together but rarely . . . and when they do, we must move decisively. Henry Cabot Lodge's new book indicates that we failed to do so ... and missed a good chance for peace ... in Vietnam in 1966. Similarly, diplomatic pundits believe Israel missed a golden-opportunity for a very favorable Mideast settlement in 1969 and 1970.
To me, it appears that 1977 may be a most propitious time perhaps the most propitious time we will ever again see for beginning the process of an overall Mideast settlement. While I recognize that speculation in itself can distort the picture, I would venture that the constellation of forces in the Middle East is nearing alignment.
I submit the following points in support of that assessment:
1.The underlying strategic situation is highly favorable to Israel. Israel's armed forces are in excellent shape and Egypt and Syria would need as much as two years to catch up militarily. Israel, in other words, can afford to bargain.
2. Syria has more than its hands full in its de facto occupation of Lebanon, where its main function will be to keep the Palestinian Liberation Organization under wraps.
3. Syria and Israel have achieved a pragmatic accommodation with respect to Southern Lebanon Israel would fear a concentration of Syrian troops on the border between Southern Lebanon and Israel. Syria has apparently agreed not to concentrate large numbers of its troops in this area. Having already reached an accommodation with Egypt in the Sinai and now with Syria in Lebanon, Israel has made a significant stride towards peace.
4. The Russian influence has declined perceptibly in the Mideast enormously in Egypt, substantially in Syria
5. Sadat of Egypt, Kahled of Saudi Arabia, Hussein of Jordan, and Assad of Syria are publicly reconciled to the concept of an independent, sovereign state of Israel.
6. The more extremist Arab states, for example Libya and Iraq, are for the moment isolated from the Arab mainstream.
7. The PLO, although not in total shambles, has been severely constrained by the events in Lebanon. Sadat, Kahled, Hussein and Assad are determined that never again will they let events and policies in their region be dominated by the PLO. If there is to be "domination" it will be them over the PLO, not vice versa.
8. Both Egypt and Syria recognize that the economic strains in their own countries and the need for modernization of their countries are more compelling and more urgent than continuing the blood-letting with Israel. To Egypt and Syria, the United States is the key both in terms of arms and industrial technology and in terms of the special and unique role that the United States plans with respect to Israel.
9. Israel still refuses to deal directly with the PLO, but does acknowledge that at the Geneva talks Palestinians will be present in some form.
10. This past Monday, Israel for the first time introduced its own resolution in the United Nations General Assembly calling for the reconvening of the Geneva peace talks.
A moment ago, I spoke of the various forces in the Mideast moving into alignment . . . that is, into some kind of logical order. I then proceeded to tick off a series of ten apparently unrelated circumstances . . . with each new one adding a bit to the confusion.
At this point, it may be helpful to recall a scene near the end of the movie "Lawrence of Arabia."
In the scene, Lawrence was walking on top of the conference tables of the great meeting hall in Damascus shouting to get the attention of the assembled Arab leaders. And, unlike previous encounters when he led the various Arab tribes against the Turkish enemy, Lawrence was ignored.
T.E. Lawrence, the western world's most renowned Arabist (and perhaps its first), never forgot his encounter in Damascus. His future writings, always advocating self-determination for the Arab states, were consistently skeptical about the prospects for Arab unity. He once wrote to Mrs. George Bernard Shaw: "I'd as soon unite the English-speaking races as the Arabic-speaking. The tremendous value and the delight of the Arab areas lie in their concentrated localization "
"Concentrated localization" whatever that is, I think I saw it in Cairo!
There is in fact great diversity in an Arab world that spans two continents, from Mauritania in West Africa to Syria in the east and Sudan in the South. The Arabic language is common, though dialects make communication difficult. Islam is the predominant religion, but there are various sects and other religions including Judaism, Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church. And there is a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds.
The monolithic Arab world of the story books and desert movies bears little resemblance to the real Arab world, a world of many diverse peoples and nations. International unity in the Arab world, while long a dream of many Arab leaders, has never in fact been a reality.
The most explicit manifestation of this dream was former Egyptian President Nasser's effort to extend Egypt's sovereignty over her neighboring states. Nasser's United Arab Republic was short-lived, however, as Egyptian armed forces bogged down in Yemen and the centrifugal force of Arab nationalism broke his hold.
Nonetheless, to this day, the Arab League seeks to keep alive the dream of Arab unity by providing a forum for joint political action. Yet joint action rarely occurs in Arab decision-making councils.
The last time general consensus was reached was during the Rabat Conference of 1974. At that time the Arab states agreed that the Palestine Liberation Organization would be given the right to bargain over territory held by Israel on the West Bank of the Jordan River, land which prior to 1967 was under the jurisdiction of King Hussein of Jordan.
But the spirit of Rabat dissipated on the battlefield of Lebanon in the spring of 1975 in a conflict which brought out the worst of the great Arab disparities. At the height of that conflict Syria and Egypt were deeply engaged in a cold war . . . Iraq was threatening to invade Syria . . Libya was sowing the seeds of terrorism, engineering a coup attempt against President Nimeri of Sudan, backing a plane hijacking in Egypt and providing children with weapons in Lebanon. The civil war itself was almost impossible for an outsider to fathom.
Two months ago not even the most knowledgeable Arabist could have known that this total disarray would be transformed into a semblance of unity. But as so often happens, the opening for peace seems to follow quickly on the heels of tragic war. Henry Kissinger showed us that when he deftly picked up the pieces of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and molded them into the Sinai Agreement between Israel and Egypt That important agreement, though it was a significant breakthrough, provided the root cause of the Syrian-Egyptian split Syria's Assad had bitterly opposed the Sinai Agreement, accusing Egyptian President Anwar Sadat of a double-cross.
Assad knew that war between Syria and Israel was out of the question unless Egypt represented a second viable threat to Israel in the west He also saw the Sinai accord as a sell-out of the PLO, and he used this line effectively to enhance Syria's prestige among other Arab states and to embarrass Sadat. His blistering criticism virtually isolated Sadat in the Arab world.
Assad rang down the curtain on step-by-step diplomacy, and made the likelihood of a final settlement more remote than ever before.
Then a third Arab state stepped in.
Long impatient over the feuding between Syria and Egypt, and upset over the tragic fighting in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the bankroll of the Arab world, used its considerable influence to bring some order out of chaos. On October 18, representatives of Egypt, Syria, Kuwait and the Palestine Liberation Organization, meeting at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, agreed on a plan to stop the Lebanese war.
The first step in this plan was perhaps as significant as the plan itself. President Assad of Syria finally agreed that he would no longer criticize Egypt's Anwar Sadat for the Sinai Agreement
In addition to patching up his differences with Sadat, Assad's acquiescence in the Sinai accord may have signaled the beginning of the end of an era of armed confrontation with Israel In acquiescing in the principle embodied in the Sinai agreement, Assad seemed also to be signaling his willingness to bargain for peace with Israel.
In exchange for this major concession, Syria was given the right to occupy most of Lebanon as part of an Arab League peacekeeping mission. The conflict in Lebanon had threatened the security of adjacent Syria. The right to impose a peace in Lebanon therefore represented a major victory of Assad and Syria, even though the Egyptians also were to be a part of the peacekeeping mission.
During a recent visit with President Sadat in Cairo, I got a taste of the lingering bitterness over Assad's long campaign against Egypt. I asked Sadat whether the Riyadh agreement meant that Egypt had agreed to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
Sadat responded "No!" with great force and said that he had warned Assad that civil war was imminent in Lebanon in April 1975. "Syria intervened militarily," Sadat continued, "and ended by drowning itself in the quagmire." Sadat said that "reconciliation with Syria is now accomplished," but he insisted that Egypt "did not give Syria carte blanche" and does not "excuse its past errors "
The next day Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy told me that Assad and Sadat "have again become brothers, as if nothing happened." It is clear that Fahmy, not Sadat, was sticking to Egypt's official line.
Nonetheless, the Riyadh agreement represents a major breakthrough. Whether Sadat and Assad can ever again become brothers is almost beside the point. The significance of Riyadh is that it stopped the fighting in Lebanon and brought much of the Arab world back together.
No sooner had peace come to Lebanon when reports were heard that Israel had augmented its forces on the Lebanon border. Would the PLO reoccupy Southern Lebanon? Or, would Syria take up a position in that strategic area, thereby extending its front line with Israel?
As it developed the answers to these questions provide another hope that a settlement may be possible. With the United States as an intermediary, Syria agreed not to move its forces south of the Litani River and stopped the PLO from moving back to its southern refugee camps where it could launch attacks on Israel. Israel immediately pulled back its forces and a de facto buffer zone was created in Southern Lebanon.
Yet another very significant development for the cause of Mideast peace is the new status of the PLO. The PLO, though not in total shambles, has been severely constrained by the events in Lebanon. Assad, Sadat, Kahlid of Saudi Arabia and Hussein of Jordan seem determined never again to allow the PLO to dictate the bottom line of Arab politics.
One outgrowth of the fall of the PLO may be a more realistic attitude on the part of that organization toward Israel. The New York Times, quoting knowledgeable officials, recently reported that PLO leaders are considering the possibility of approving the concept of a Palestinian state situated adjacent to the Jewish state of Israel. Such a move would leave open the possibility of creating a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
More importantly, the acceptance of such a stand by the many factions which comprise the PLO would mean de facto recognition of Israel's right to exist. Such a major policy shift remains to be seen, but it would be, if it came to pass, another positive sign.
Israel, for its part, has been advancing a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for a reconvening of Geneva talks, and has recommended a new type of interim approach, patterned after the Helsinki accord. In an interview with the French newspaper France Soir, Prime Minister Rabin suggested a number of arrangements with his neighbors which would be designed to demonstrate that cooperation is better than confrontation.
"I think it is better sometimes to begin by launching common economic projects," Rabin said, "and, thanks to the benefits derived, create an atmosphere which would help accelerate the movement toward peace . . ."
Israel clearly seems ready to go to Geneva to see what can be accomplished. It is an election year, though, and Rabin will be seeking to keep his position in a tight battle with his Defense Minister Shimon Peres. Will Rabin risk an effort to achieve a settlement?
Quite naturally, this question arose in my meeting with Rabin last month. He responded that his chances for election will be strengthened if he is seen as the competent statesman protecting Israel's vital interests in the midst of peace negotiations. It remains to be seen how far Rabin will be able to go in an election year, but there is a growing awareness in Israel too that the time to try for peace may have arrived.
Israel, as I have mentioned, is estimated to be two years ahead of its adversaries in modern weaponry. And the Sinai accord keeps Egypt at bay, so Israel's basic advantage of the one-front war remains. The two year period may well be the margin of safety within which a courageous Israeli try for peace can be launched.
Equally important may be a shift in Arab attitude toward the PLO. Despite the rhetoric over this issue at the UN, the Arab countries are now much less willing to go to the mat to assure that the PLO is represented at a peace conference. And Israel has indicated that it will not object if a few PLO representatives are absorbed into the Arab delegations.
It may well be that the easiest part will be the convening of the peace conference. Even the broad outlines of a final settlement are still political dynamite in the countries involved.
Where would a Palestinian state be established? What about Jerusalem? How does Israel define "secure borders?" Each of these questions could present the negotiators with a loaded gun to be used to bring a peace conference to an inauspicious end.
A final solution to the problems of the Middle East is by no means assured in 1977. But I remain somewhat optimistic, and maintain my view that this year offers us the best chance for peace in a long while. Indeed, the current line-up in the Middle East may well present the last chance our generation has to bring peace to that war-plagued region.
Israel and the United States must not let this opportunity slip away. If it does, Egypt and Syria may well revert to the uneasy alliance that made the 1973 war so effective. The next war could be even more devastating.