The Middle East: 1. A View From the UN

The twenty-year pattern of United Nations action on Middle East conflicts—damping down explosions, interposing forces, and caring for victims—enabled the major powers to postpone tough political decisions. Israel and the Arabs have ventilated their grievances in the General Assembly and Security Council, knowing they were mainly sounding boards. Except in times of crisis, little of these sessions reached outside UN halls. They rarely led to positive action.

Substantive efforts to deal with immediate issues have usually been made in quiet, often secret UN negotiations. A ship would be released after apparent silence. Prisoners and hostages would be exchanged, almost surreptitiously. Peacekeeping operations, like that in Cyprus, are public and of convincing utility. UN Observers have been perilously visible along the hundred-mile Suez Canal cease-fire line, and on the fringes of occupied areas of Syria for two years. But peacemaking has had to be less exposed. Ambassador Gunnar Jarring’s discreet probings for avenues to settlement are possible only because they protect those involved from public view.

When it became apparent last winter that they were not leading to agreement, that a tentative concession from one side brought no corresponding offer from the other, and that the talks were in fact screening a new arms buildup, the so-called Big Four could no longer avoid the issues. The U.S.S.R. and the United States then made two positive moves. The U.S.S.R. reversed its long-standing objections to UN peacekeeping forces and urged such a force for the Palestine situation. The United States grasped the nettle, so long avoided, and proposed a Big Four guarantee of a UN negotiated settlement.

The Soviet move represents a long step from the days when no agreement could be reached on peacekeeping in the Congo or on the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) in Gaza and Egypt. In these cases the U.S.S.R. and France stood out, refused to pay assessments, and denied legality of the operations. Moscow’s agreement with the other powers now shows its interest in disengaging from direct commitment to Egypt’s security. Washington, for similar reasons, favors the return of the blue berets to future demilitarized zones, such as those envisioned for Sinai. It believes that collective security measures, backed by Security Council authority, are one way to head off a fourth round with major power involvement.

Time and terms

Egypt’s desire for Israeli withdrawal from Sinai has been so overwhelming that it would not automatically reject UN forces there again. Israel, however, rejects any UN interposition, would not permit it on its side of any DMZ, and sticks to its demand for direct talks. Nevertheless, the rationale for UN policing in such trouble spots is obvious to the major powers, preoccupied with their own grave problems of arms control. Their resort to UN machinery in the Palestine case means that they see no prospect of an early peace there and that they intend at almost any cost to avoid direct military entanglement in the area. Whether they have the will or strength to establish any international force there in time to neutralize the gathering storm this winter is the great question now.

Each side in the conflict appears to believe that time favors it. No one outside shares this view. But Israel knows that the Arabs are incapable of directing a successful military offensive against it. Israel believes that if Lhe Arabs see no hope of outside mediation, they will eventually talk peace. And Israel has indicated that if Ambassador Jarring’s terms of reference are altered, it may not even deal with him.

To the Arabs direct talks under existing conditions mean surrender. Israel has stated in advance that certain conquests are not negotiable. These include the Golan Heights, Sharm el Sheik, and Jerusalem. Even in its occupation of Jordan’s West Bank, Israel is demonstrating that it can “create facts,” as General Dayan says, which will make a return of that area more complicated. Israeli settlements along the Jordan, the bulldozing of many houses in East Jerusalem, and Israel’s plan, stated in last year’s government yearbook, to “repeople” the city by adding 40,000 settlers there are conspicuous examples of Israeli intentions. The fact that there are Israeli leaders who envision an Arab, Muslim, and Christian borough for a Greater Jerusalem is less well known than the well-publicized take-over of Arab properties in East Jerusalem for Israeli government offices. Given the sensitivity of the Jerusalem issue among Muslims and Christians around the world, Israeli action in the city seems unnecessarily provocative. This comes through with particular emphasis in the recurring Security Council debates on the status of Jerusalem. From the international point of view, including all of the major powers, Jerusalem’s status is not settled and cannot be settled by Israel acting alone.

The Arabs, on their side, believe that time will bring them vindication which they cannot win in battle. Meanwhile, like the Israelis, they have adopted the policy of “active defense.”For Egypt this means keeping the Suez cease-fire line under attack, lest it become another accepted frontier for lack of resistance.

The Syrians are being encouraged to show more resistance as well. Jordan can only attempt to protect some of its important targets, such as the East Ghor Canal, which has twice suffered serious damage from bombardment. Jordan is powerless to move against Israel and almost powerless now to hold back the fedayeen who operate from East Bank territory. (See Report that follows.) King Hussein has offered Israel peace in exchange for return of the West Bank. He cannot go further. With a population half Palestinian, he can only make peace if their claims to at least the remnants of their country are re-established.

The Jarring effort, and tfie Big Four talks, designed to strengthen his hand, aimed at contriving a package in which there would be inducements for all. It would include simultaneous steps toward Israeli withdrawal from occupied areas and Arab recognition of Israel. This would solve the chicken-and-egg dilemma over who should blink first. Israel, feeling militarily secure for the first time, clings to the idea of trading some of its conquered territory for a final, formal peace treaty. The Arabs, whose only remaining card is acceptance of Israel, will not play it during occupation. There was a time a year ago when an announced intention by Israel to withdraw would have brought Arab response. But that time has passed, and during the last uneasy months positions have hardened on all sides.

There is in the air an ominous sense of further impending tragedy later this year. Egypt is waiting to train enough pilots to man its MIG’s. Israel is waiting for elections, and for the Phantom planes the United States has promised for delivery soon.

The polarization which the Big Four have hoped to avoid continues to threaten them as well. The Russians cannot abandon Egypt. But they cannot influence it either. The Egyptians, having misread the signs and expected another Eisenhowerstyle Administration to rescue them diplomatically, are bitter about Western ideas of settlement. They take Washington’s concessions to Israel on border changes and eventual direct talks as a final rebuff. Even so they are wistful about Western connections. Communication between representatives in Cairo and Washington is excellent, even in the absence of ambassadors. The Nixon Administration has no intention of waiving its genuine interest in a fair settlement in favor of an all-out proIsraeli stand. Tensions between it and the Israeli government are, in fact, acute at times and are openly acknowledged for the first time. Mrs. Meir’s public criticism of U.S. policy is significant. She cannot accept the view that Israel’s security can be assured by the buffer-zone method, or that Israel may well need to take half a victory for the sake of peace.


In the absence of any real agreements there are moves which the major powers can make to lower the level of Middle East violence. One, repeatedly urged at the UN, is to scale down arms shipments to both sides. Unless this is done, the prospects for damping down the present pyrotechnics are nil.

Other initiatives could be taken to reduce political fevers. Most important would be to tackle some basic Palestine refugee problems. Two constructive moves are immediately possible without raising political issues. First is the financing of better schools than UNRWA/UNESCO are able to provide for refugee youth. Half of the total registered refugee population of 1,375,915 are under eighteen. Primary schooling is generally available, even in new tented camps. But older youths may find their schooling reduced. UNRWA,

short $5 million this year, is obliged to warn the host country governments of possible budget cuts to schools. The implications are obvious, if there is not to be another lost generation. Where refugee youths have had training, especially in vocational schools, they have become productive and self-respecting.

Among UN resources there is another potential asset which could be used to relieve many refugee families. The work of the Palestine Refugee Office has simply lapsed since its job of identifying and evaluating Palestinian properties in Israel was completed in 1964. It could be reestablished at any time on the authority of the Palestine Conciliation Commission. Its completed inventory could become, as was intended, a basis for paying compensation, at least in the form of approximate income, to owners whose holdings are listed. Some 453,000 separate items appear on this record, compiled after long research in Gaza, Israel, Jordan, and Syria. It is one of the more useful legacies of the Palestine mandate. The Arab governments, in comments on the inventory, do not, of course, agree with its values, set at the time the Palestinians left in 1948. But Palestinians themselves, if given a chance today, may find it worthwhile to consider even partial compensation.

This possibility arises as one of the results of the Six-Day War. After that war many Palestinians were able for the first time in twenty years to visit their properties in Israel. The changed setting and structures were a shock. So was the homogeneous character of Israel, where they could scarcely imagine themselves now “returning.” The discovery of this reality is believed by many who know their situation to have altered their idea about rejecting the second half of the UN promise of return or compensation. Political grievances are as strong as ever. Anyone who knows them realizes that for this reason a frontal attack en bloc will fail. But the time may have come to test the view that the offer of some income from former holdings could be accepted without loss of dignity or moral rights.

The whole refugee situation has become since 1967 the subject of fresh study and debate in Israel, Washington, and at the UN. Private studies, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, have been ground out after elaborate field trips. Pulses have been taken, statistics gathered, computers fed. Aside from these exercises it is obvious that there is now a greater need to carry out the UN compensation promise without long debate or delay. Here the major powers could count on universal support. Events have cleared the way. Such limited compensation as this scheme would provide cannot solve the problem. But its psychological effect could compound even its limited financial benefits.

Without any such effort, UNRWA is obliged to carry on the minimal relief, shelter, and welfare services which sustain 478,369 refugees in East Jordan; 269,065 in the West Bank; 307,824 in Gaza, as well as another 320,000 in Lebanon and Syria. Many are refugees for the second time since 1948. It is not surprising that their consequent demoralization has led so many youths to enlist in the fedayeen. Since June, 1967, this generation has abandoned all hope of any other future.

It apparently took the 1967 defeat to galvanize and adrenalize the Palestinian youth movement. Now, with solid financial support from Arab treasuries, and payroll taxes on Palestinians abroad, it moves more confidently than any other element toward its distant goal of a restored Palestine—restored for both Arabs and Jews, but “liberated” from Zionism.

It is too soon to judge whether the more responsible fedayeen are true heirs of the Arab awakening earlier in this century. But it is undeniable that their agreement will be necessary before any political arrangement involving Palestinians can take place. The old order in Cairo and Amman know this; and they are less free than a year ago to settle, even if they had the will.