Middle East: After the Arab Defeat

There have been not one but many moments of truth in the Middle East since June 5. Their cumulative effect has destroyed old assumptions and made the awakening to new realities a slow process. None of those involved — Israelis, Arabs, Russians, and the West — were prepared to face their drastically altered positions after the June 11 cease-fire.

For the Israelis it was a shock to find themselves almost overnight occupying territories inhabited by a million Arabs. The old anxiety about security gave way soon to a new anxiety about coping with this unexpected ingathering.

For the Arabs there was the trauma of discovering that all the new weapons were useless without a mastery of modern technology. The humiliation of defeat was compounded by the realization that the East, which they represented, could not match its wild rhetoric with effective action.

The U.S.S.R., which had played the Arab card with such skill and confidence, found itself identified with one of the great military losses of all time. And it could not muster enough political support to bail out its Arab partners at the United Nations.

For the West, especially the United States, there was the shock of realizing that it had slight influence in Israel; and that wider Western interests made little difference to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in settling a festering local score with the Arabs.

Everyone felt let down: the Arabs by Moscow’s failure to rescue them; the Israelis by Washington’s futile attempt to delay confrontation; the Soviets by Nasser’s brinkmanship; and the West by both Israel and the Arab moderates.

One of the resulting questions is about the value or wisdom of United Nations interpositions in areas of acute tension. For twenty years the UN has helped to delay political solutions to Middle East issues. The Arab refugees have been kept alive thanks to UNRWA. It has been 70 percent supported by the United States as a means of postponing political settlement of the refugees’ claims.

UN Truce Supervision officers have risked their lives to patrol the 1949 Armistice lines, and have kept the episodic flare-ups in demilitarized zones from exploding. After the Suez blowup the UN Emergency Force moved in to patrol the Sinai and Gaza demarcation lines, operating only on Egypt’s side when Israel rejected their services. A Conciliation Commission for Palestine has met intermittently since 1949, preserving the form but avoiding the substance of conciliation. None of its three members, representing Turkey, France, and the United States, has wanted to risk initiating a genuine settlement within the UN framework.

Dialogue of the deaf

All of these agencies have helped to kill the Middle East yeast since 1949. In theory Israel opposed them, and in fact usually ignored them. For long periods it boycotted various Mixed Armistice Commissions set up to mediate frontier disputes. Israel has consistently sought direct peace talks with the Arabs. But in Arab capitals the UN has looked like a refuge and a shield. It was the one place where their side of the Palestine case could be publicly aired in the West, and the one protection against risky encounters. They needed interposition. Israel believed that it did not. It could look after itself.

All the endless Palestine debates at the UN have to be considered in this light. The hyperventilation of grievances and charges on both sides has occasionally revealed a glimmer of the real issues, which few professional reporters accomplish. Allowing for Arab hyperbole and the Israelis’ forensic skill, the essential cleavage between the Arab East and the West, as Israel represents it, comes through.

It is a dialogue of the deaf and is, unhappily, the only dialogue yet possible between the two sides. Within their separate worlds, however, there are new and important dialogues going on. Israel’s great debate now is about how to treat its conquests; whether to make shortrange demonstration of its overwhelming power and efficiency, or to work toward long-range acceptance in the region. In a curious way its victory over the West Bank of Jordan and Gaza gives it a second chance with the Arabs. It can make a fresh start on the refugee question. The Palestinians are truly helpless. They can no longer fight back except in the most incidental ways. Israel’s approach to them is crucial, not only for them, but for its own future in the Arab East.

At best Israel can offer them a buffer state with local autonomy in the West Bank and give Gaza refugees a chance to go there. In this way part of the original scheme outlined in the UN partition plan would evolve. An autonomous Palestine would have access to the Mediterranean and to East Jordan. It would restore the dignity and status of one of the sturdier elements in the Arab world. But Israel’s price for such a state would be recognition and economic cooperation.

Jerusalem the prize

The price would not be quite so hard for Palestinians to accept if they had any hope of regaining some status in Jerusalem. Here the Israelis, having annexed all of Jerusalem, would have great difficulty in compromising. In the euphoria of victory in June the Israelis ignored all international claims to the city. They forgot that it is the capital of an entire region, a city-state in the historic sense. The Israeli determination to control this entity for their exclusive administration and benefit defies world opinion. In extenuation Israelis point quite rightly to the world’s indifference when Jordan refused, after its own conquest in 1948, to internationalize the city, and to their own exclusion from the Old City since then. On a tit-for-tat scale they have the power today to assume exclusive control. But in spite of a willingness to protect Muslim and Christian shrines, they isolate themselves. The 99-0 UN resolution on Jerusalem at the General Assembly in July reflects this fact. So does the fact that thirty-four countries still refuse to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and keep their embassies in Tel Aviv (twenty-two acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital).

Can the deep emotions evoked by Jerusalem be waved aside? Why did millions of tourists flock to this beautiful but inconvenient old city through the years when it was cut off from Israeli traffic? The Israelis have yet to find an answer for Jerusalem which will reconcile their own special attachment with that of the outside world. They may find a way through the offices of the general ecumenical movement emanating from the Christian world. But they must also reckon with Islam and its historic claims if they want peace in Jerusalem. Here in the most poignant way the East-West dichotomy has to be faced.

Israel’s most fundamental internal debate is concerned with demography. To fulfill the Zionist ideal it must gather in the Jews of the Diaspora and hold them. Here something has gone wrong. In spite of calls for immigration, especially from the West, and in spite of restrictions on emigration, Israel in 1966 had a net loss of immigration. Many of those leaving went to Canada and the United States. Unemployment was one reason. By the spring of 1967 there were 100,000 unemployed in Israel, 10 percent of the work force. The reverse exodus included many young people, who have become part of the Israeli brain drain to the West, where technically educated youth have a brighter future than in Israel. Prime Minister Eshkol has stressed the need for a new start on immigration to reach a goal of five million Israelis by the year 2000. He has also urged an increase in the Jewish birthrate, which runs much lower than that of the Arabs in Israel.

Arabs in Israel

An Interministerial Committee has reported that at the present rate of increases and without large-scale Jewish immigration Israel will become a binational state within three generations. The average Muslim woman there has 8.2 children; the Arab Christian, 7.2; and the Jewish woman, 3.1. Hence the official appeals.

The six-day war of 1967 only increased this problem. Occupied Jerusalem alone has 80,000 Arabs. There are 458,000 in Gaza, which Israel aims to hold, and at least a half million in the West Bank. Anticipating at the least a long occupation while the Arabs sort out their political defeat, Israel must decide this year whether to try to integrate these people or to wall them off. In 1957 after the Suez affair Israel withdrew from Gaza rather than cope with the Arab population. Today the problem is even more pressing.

There are two other political aspects to the population dilemma for Israel. Its hope of getting immigrants from the Jewish population in the U.S.S.R. must now be deferred. And its appeal for immigrants from the West opens it once more to the Arab charge of Western colonialist expansion.

To liberalize and Arabize

Post-war debate in Arab capitals has been strangely muted. In Cairo President Nasser retired into silence for six weeks after the Arab defeat. King Hussein made a gallant try at explaining the Arab case at the General Assembly. (And within the Arab world the revolutionaries and the traditionalists have been struggling to present a united front.) It will take time to compose a policy which must reconcile economic and political realities and preserve Arab dignity. In this process it seems likely that the Arab nationalists, the socialists, will gain more financial support from the Arabian Gulf states in return for less meddling in the latter’s internal management. There seems to be a sort of in ter-Arab cease-fire developing, typified by the Egyptian withdrawals from Yemen.

This immediate reprieve for the traditionalists or kings may give them time to evolve more rapidly. But they will at the same time be under immense pressure from their younger constituents to liberalize their regimes and Arabize their immense oil industry. Two rising forces are at work in these countries. One is led by the exiled Palestinians who have found work and status in the oil countries. These are mostly sons of refugees, but they identify with their Palestinian families. Thus the recent Arab defeat has awakened old resentments in an entirely new generation. They are joined in their general protest by the new generation of local youth, educated now in increasing numbers, and embarrassed by the vestiges of tribal society in newly rich countries.

The combined internal pressures of the new generation and the external demands of nationalism in Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus are forcing the pace in Riyadh, Kuwait, and Tripoli. Added to these demands are the new ones for reprisals against the friends of Israel. Arab labor unions are spearheading these demands.

The result is likely to be a steppedup rate of relinquishments, increased profit-sharing, and labor harassment to reduce the advantage of Western oil operators in Arabproducing states. Other reprisals are the denial of bases to Britain and the United States in Libya, dictated by political necessity for that moderate government.

Egypt itself seems less in need of proving its nationalist purity. American firms developing two important oil fields in partnership with the government have been asked to continue. And while diplomatic relations have been broken, fourteen American officers have been admitted to look after American properties and interests under the protection of the Spanish Embassy in Cairo. One American college remains open, minus its American staff.

With a stronger sense of realism than most Arab governments, the Egyptian regime is facing its situation with considerable stoicism. An austerity budget cuts public expenditures drastically and raises taxes on income and sales. The government has even appealed for gold wedding rings to be contributed to the lean treasury. Egypt’s long-term debts amount to §1 billion. It is losing $575,000 a day while the Suez Canal is closed, and $70 million a year from tourism. To add to its woes the cotton crop is badly infested this year, and insecticides must be imported. Egypt also needs $120 million worth of imported grains a year to feed its people. One move to alleviate this shortage has been quietly announced. The old socialist restrictions on landholdings have been lifted for owners willing to grow food. Socialist doctrine is yielding to necessity in this case, with unpredictable results.

Nasser subdued

President Nasser’s subdued speech on the fifteenth anniversary of the revolution in July still stressed its objectives. He is convinced that the “imperialists” — that is, the West and Israel —want to destroy the revolution, and he challenged the Egyptians to defy them by carrying on. Citing impartially the spirit of Dunkirk and that of the Viet Cong, he asserted that Egyptians have always been a struggling people, He pictured their immediate task as that of protecting the revolution and consolidating it. Hence the drive for harder work, more taxes, more efficiency. Significantly, perhaps, he suggested that younger leaders should be drafted to carry on this drive. “Our generation has provided leaders for the transition period,” he said. “What is necessary now is that other generations step forward.”

In Jordan King Hussein can look ahead less expectantly. The loss of the West Bank reduces Jordan’s cultivable land by one fourth and industrial establishments by one half. Industries like oil refining and a cement plant are too large for the East Bank Market and so are uneconomic. Lost are some $26 million a year from Jerusalem tourists, $5 million from agricultural exports from the West Bank, and some $28 million in remittances from emigré Palestinians. Subsidies from Britain and the United States have helped greatly to keep Jordan going and put it within sight of selfsufficiency. But these do not appear now to be forthcoming.

Jordan has made the most of the infusion of Palestinian talent since 1948. The refugee population was welcomed to citizenship and has been moving into the economy. For example, the population of UNRWA camps at Jericho had dropped from 80,000 to 60,000 in recent years. Income per capita had risen 7.5 percent in the last ten years, and about 90 percent of Jordan’s children were in school.

Jordan’s share of the Jordan River system, most of it drawn from the Yarmuk tributary, has been used to extend irrigation in the Jordan valley. Under construction when the June war occurred was a dam at Mukheiba on the Yarmuk to make possible an extension of this irrigation system and provide power for Syria, a co-riparian along the Yarmuk. Today Israel holds the site of this dam as well as the Syrian region around Baniyas, one of the important headwaters of the Jordan. Israelis arc therefore in physical control of Syrian and Jordan river development.

Politically as well as economically, Jordan can scarcely survive without the West Bank. The East Bank is at the mercy of neighboring Iraq and Syria. It is a question whether Israel would be happy to see Jordan completely absorbed by these much more nationalist states, but barring rescue by Washington, this may be East Jordan’s fate.

Moscow’s mistake

The U.S.S.R. strategy in the Middle East has been to reduce and eliminate Western power and influence. Arming the Syrians and Egyptians and helping the Yemen Republicans were part of the plan to undermine the conservative and more pro-Western states. Eventually, according to this plan, the revolutionaries would inherit in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and the Western hold on Arab oil would disappear. Russians would control the Arab crossroads and the movements and cost of Arab oil in Europe.

Not included in this design was any such rash brinkmanship as President Nasser’s in regard to Israel. Moscow underrated the strength of local imperatives, as it overrated Egyptian technical competence in arms. Moscow also overrated its own influence with the Arabs. When it tried last summer to win Arab consent to a nonbelligerent position toward Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawals, Egypt and Jordan would have gone along. But Algeria and Syria blocked this exercise in pragmatism.

In the weeks ahead the struggle among the Arabs to find a way of facing the cold realities of their position will be crucial for them and for their Communist and nonaligned champions. President Nasser has already implicitly turned down the Algerian-style guerrilla solution to the struggle against Israel and, in principle, has accepted the idea of a political compromise solution.

The U.S.S.R. continues to try. It has hinted at delays in its promised $150 million for a Euphrates dam, indicating anxiety about more Middle East flurries. One of the few unadorned truths revealed last summer was that neither the U.S.S.R. nor the Unitcd States wanted an open confrontation in the Middle East. By the end of the General Assembly they were working together on ways of damping down the Arab-Israeli conflagration. By August they were encouraging new negotiations on a nonproliferation treaty.

Washington’s interest

For the United States in the last twenty years there have been three overlapping Middle East contests involving American interests. The cold war contest was highlighted and then put aside during the summer crisis. The second contest is that between the revolutionaries and the traditionalists. For a time Washington tried a policy of disengagement from their local quarrels, giving aid to both Cairo and Amman, for example. (Between 1946 and 1965 Egypt received $1.08 billion and Jordan $510 million.) But as Cairo’s dynamism was diverted to external areas, particularly Yemen, the old even-handed policy was abandoned. Saudi Arabia became an obvious chosen instrument when a choice in the American interest had to be made.

In this period the even-handed treatment included Israel, which received from government sources $1.07 billion through 1965. And American arms, which went to both Israel and Jordan, were delivered with the stipulation that they were to be used only for defense.

What was beyond American power to stipulate was the escalation of bad feeling between Israel and the Arabs. The long struggle over Jordan water division exacerbated this enmity. When Israel in 1964 began to pipe Tiberias water to its coastal area and desert, the upstream countries came under pressure to protect their own water rights. Actual fighting over these was averted by Nasser’s promotion of summitry and call for unity before any Arab attack on Israel. But the Syrians never really accepted this strategy. Their terrorist attacks increased all through 1965 and into the spring of 1967. Then they challenged Nasser to remove his U.S. protector, the UNEF, and in a moment of inexplicable aberration, he did so.

In the final showdown stemming from the Arab-Israeli struggle, Washington’s commitment to Israel was inevitable. The defeated Arabs have had confirmed all their doubts about the neutrality proclaimed by successive Administrations. It remains for Washington now to decide what its real interests in the area are in 1967 and for the future. It appears to have had its moment in the Middle East. It may no longer be possible to maintain a relationship of mutual advantage with the Arab moderates. Certainly it will be harder to help them survive unless Washington can regain a detached position.

For twenty years we have had it both ways. But the polarization brought about by Israel’s blitzkreig in June has ended an era for its friends as well as its enemies.


Rowland Evans and Robert Novak write the syndicated Washington column, INSIDE REPORT. Faye Levine, who has been in India on a Fulbright Scholarship, contributes frequently to the ATLANTIC. Chuck Stone is a Washington-based journalist who has served as an aide to several politicians, including Representative Adam Clayton Powell. He is the author of a forthcoming book:

NEGRO POLITICAL POWER IN AMERICA.In future issues, as in this one, some reports will be unsigned at the request of their authors. The ATLANTIC, of course, assumes responsibility for them.