For the last six months, Suez has been the focus of converging national interests. Egypt, the Soviet Union, all of Asia, Western Europe, and now the United States want the Suez Canal opened. Practical politics and shipping economics combine to reassert universal interest in the Suez passageway. Since Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat first formally offered to open it last February, it has been up to Israel to decide whether to heed the general consensus and, in the interest of real détente with Egypt, to consent to the first steps of withdrawal from the Eastern bank of the Canal.

Israel’s position here can be truly fateful. An initial pullback for the limited purpose of enabling Egypt to reopen the waterway implies further steps toward eventual peace with the Arabs. For Israel to face this possibility for the first time in its twentythree-year history requires a wholly new orientation. Without putting down its guard or relinquishing its deterrent power, Israel can now choose peace. Egypt and Jordan have offered recognition and negotiations for a peace settlement. Israel, for all its cynical views and expressed doubts, appears to realize that these are genuine offers, that something new has happened in the Middle East.

Therapy

Even so, some quantum jumps are required. The psychological gaps between the two sides are so great and the distrust so chronic that no normal dealing is yet possible. Confidence and insights taken for granted elsewhere in the world will have to be carefully nurtured here. Old stereotypes implanted during years of propaganda about Arab “intransigence” and Israeli “expansionism” have to be discarded. This has been the essential aim of the long procession of mediators, buffer agencies, and friendly advisers to both sides over twenty years of truces and wars.

Their work is not yet done. Such efforts as those of Secretary of State William Rogers on his recent visits to Arab capitals and to Israel show how much more persuasion is required to alter the psychological climate. If time could stand still, the necessary changes in attitude could be allowed to grow slowly. Today, outside pressures threaten further polarization unless some breakthrough can be achieved.

The specific issue of the Canal could just possibly provide a therapeutic exercise. Agreement on its reopening involves dealings between Egypt and Israel under U.S. and UN auspices, which could provide some of the encouragement needed to cool suspicions and build confidence. The heavily armed contenders, now poised only two hundred yards apart on opposite banks, would be separated.

Israeli withdrawal, even the few miles it is considering, would put its forces out of sight and range of Egyptian guns. Washington’s suggestion for a pullback of twenty-five miles would place Israel’s defense line at the Mitla Pass, well out of missile range. This in turn would mean more rapid Egyptianization of the Western bank. It has been noted that Russian technicians have already begun to withdraw from there.

In Cairo a year ago Gamal Abdel Nasser was seeking alternatives to overdependence on the Soviet Union. This was one of the reasons for his acceptance of the Rogers peace proposals of June, 1970. President Sadat and Prime Minister Mahmoud Fawzi are equally concerned to regain economic and political independence. Everything they have done since taking office has shown their determination to improve relations with Washington and regain Egypt’s international status. The decision in May to relieve Vice President Aly Sabry of his office reflected the regime’s rejection of more exclusive ties with Moscow. Aly Sabry, while not a Communist, is regarded as Moscow’s man in Cairo. The ensuing Cabinet changes confirmed Sadat’s moderate position.

Paradoxically, it is Russian support and arms which have put Egypt into a position of relative strength from which to bargain with Israel. The Russian military presence in the Mediterranean and in Egypt has also acted as a powerful deterrent to Israel. When four Russian planes were brought down by the Israeli Air Force last summer, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had suddenly to face a new situation in Egypt. In his pragmatic way, he changed course and began to examine ways of approaching a settlement with Egypt. More recently, General Dayan commented that the delivery to Egypt of the advanced Soviet MIG-23 jets is “burdensome,” though he maintains that Israel is still better equipped militarily than Egypt.

It was Dayan and his press friends in Israel who first floated the idea of reopening the Canal. Readers of Maariv and Haaretz pondered suggestions last fall that both Israel and Egypt had a common interest in not resuming war; and that, since it was unrealistic to expect to work out a formal peace, some “interim arrangement” should be tried. These papers carried various proposals for demilitarized zones along the Canal which would make possible its reopening and the resumption of civilian life in the blitzed cities of Suez, Port Said, Qantarah, and Ismailia. Some of the underlying rationale for the Israeli ideas was hinted at in Haaretz. It was suggested that such an initiative by Israel for partial withdrawal would help assure contacts with the Soviets.

In addition to appeasing the Soviet Union, the Israeli suggestion offered something for everyone. But it did not become official policy. It only added momentum to the earlier efforts of World Bank officials, European diplomats, and other leaders trying to arrange some détente along the Canal as a means of reducing tensions. In October, 1968, world banker Eugene Black urged this step in an important speech in Washington. Early last fall the idea was put forth again by John C. Campbell in Foreign Affairs. “Is Suez our Thermopylae?” he asked. “Is the United States to move to a showdown with the Soviet Union on such a point as maintenance of Israel’s air superiority over Egyptian territory west of the Canal as the key to blocking Soviet domination of the Middle East?” Implicit here was the idea now being urged by President Nixon and Secretary of State Rogers that geography is no longer the real key to security.

Realism

Western Europe’s concern over the dangerous military buildups along the Canal is evident at NATO meetings. The Common Market countries’ dependence on Middle Eastern fuel for industrial survival gives them a vital interest in its cost and accessibility. A series of diplomatic visits to Israel and Egypt by Dutch, French, Italian, and British ministers has underscored their concern. These consuming countries have been paying the extra freight rates on all shipping caused by the Canal’s closing. Equally serious for their economies is the rising cost of oil as the producing countries see their chance and unite to raise charges all along the line. Opening of the Canal would not reverse this sellers’ market, but it would at once reduce shipping rates by re-employing many small tankers not now in use. For all these economic and strategic reasons, European governments have exerted what influence they can on Israel and Egypt to move toward some agreement on the Canal.

The Soviet attitude toward a genuine settlement between Egypt and Israel remains undefined. It may be significant that President Sadat’s ideas of a rollback at Suez resemble those of the Russians for phased withdrawals which they put forth at the UN in 1969. Egypt’s present offer to reopen the Canal in return for partial Israeli withdrawal is openly encouraged by the Soviets, who have been lobbying tirelessly at the UN for just such a step. How much contact there has been between Israelis and Soviets is a matter for speculation. It is known that Moscow has specifically restated that it recognizes Israel’s integrity, though it has so far made no moves toward establishing formal diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.

Basically, Russian policy has been designed to isolate the United States in company with Israel while actively working to influence the Arabs. Washington has managed not to let this happen, in spite of deep Arab resentment over the special U.S. relationship with Israel. Secretary Rogers has taken pains to keep open channels of communication with Egypt. There is consistent American support for Jordan. His recent visits to the area underscored American interests in the region as a whole. At the same time, he emphasized that the United States continues to support Israel but does not support Israel’s 1967 conquests. This distinction, maintained ever since 1967, has helped to prevent the polarization envisioned by the Russians. Rogers’ willingness to assume an active peacemaking and peacekeeping role cuts across the Russian desire not to let him claim a success in the region. There is a question whether this aim is as important, however, as their real desire to see the Canal opened.

In Egypt, time has shown that in spite of enormous Russian investment, the Egyptians have not been won over to the Russian view of the world or to Russian methods. In ten years of working together, little rapport has developed. The Russians seem to have underestimated the degree of sophistication among Egyptian technocrats now running the country. They find the Sadat government freer to act than was President Nasser’s, and more inclined to realism. The government attempts to reduce tensions and avoid open conflict. Soviet interests also seem to call for avoiding an all-out challenge to the West in the Middle East. This much seems true regardless of the continuing amount of armament still being provided for Egypt’s defense. It is important to note that even the latest additions of aircraft do not change the essentially defensive character of Egypt’s air protection.

Opening

Assuming that the Canal will be opened this year, Egyptian technicians have been busy for some time with planning. The first step must be to sweep both banks for mines. Beyond that, no major works are involved. It would take less than six months to tow away the fourteen ships stranded in Great Bitter Lake and to clear obstructions which are far less formidable than in 1957. Once cleared, ships of up to 40,000 tons, which include the bulk of the world’s tankers, could transit the Canal.

A second stage of dredging, reinforcing weakened banks, and restoring harbors and docks would take about eighteen months. The cost of these two stages of restoration are estimated by Mahmoud Younes, former chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, at some $25 million. Mr. Younes also foresees the possible widening and deepening of the Canal in the next five years. In 1966, there was a plan for this enlargement to take ships of up to 250,000 deadweight tons. Studies for this improvement were completed in February. 1967. An international consortium was to provide the financing, with World Bank assistance. Mr. Younes, on a recent visit to the United States, saw no reason why this plan could not now be carried out.

Geography is still the significant fact in gauging the value of the Canal. It cuts the mileage from Britain to the Far East by 30 percent and to India by 40 percent. In its last full year of operation, it handled 21,250 ships. Italian tonnage was greatest, followed by British, French, and American. In seventh place among 1966 shippers was the Soviet Union. The Canal is of particular importance to the Soviets, however, because their merchant fleet is made up of some 1800 ships all under 40,000 tons. Such ships cannot operate economically around the Cape of Good Hope. For commercial reasons alone, then, the Russians need the Suez route.

Until recently it has been widely believed that much more sinister reasons lay behind Russian interest in the Canal. Today these reasons do not seem so important as the general needs of world shipping interests to reduce costs and regain open access to East and West. Closure of the Canal has not prevented Russian movement and expansion. It has only increased costs and been inconvenient.

Egypt’s stake in the Canal is economic and political. In 1966 it took in $215 million from tolls. Beyond this profitable outlook, the reopening would be a sign of political success for the Sadat government. Sadat would have carried out the Nasser policy of preventing the Canal from becoming a frontier. This would be his answer to his more reckless domestic opponents who suddenly left the government in May. President Sadat has shown courage in the face of real internal pressures. He needs to be able to show that the policy of compromise works.

Time

Nineteen seventy-one was to have been the year of negotiation. This was heralded by Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban and by Secretary Rogers. With half the year gone, there is a new sense of urgency in Washington and among the Big Four. The cease-fire needs to be confirmed. Both sides talk about peace, but to each it means different things.

Egypt, in taking the plunge and offering recognition and peace, expects to regain its land, even with demilitarized zones. No Egyptian government can sign away its lands in a peace treaty. Withdrawal means something else to Israel. It can accept Egypt’s need for sovereignty over its territory, but Israel does not feel safe with buffer zones and international patrols. Israel asks control rather than sovereignty. As Flora Lewis wrote here (“Israel,” The Atlantic, June), Israel’s occupation policy has been designed to maintain control wherever security is involved, regardless of sovereignty. All the stratagems involved in the Allon, Dayan, and other plans for peace have been based on their definitions of security. These were theoretical in the days when Israel expected continued stalemate. But the peace offers have finally come, along with internationally recognized requirements of sovereignty over occupied areas. The offers present Israel with an agonizing choice between taking them and trusting the international community for the first time under peaceful circumstances; or rejecting them and remaining isolated for years.

United States efforts have been directed at making it possible for Israel to opt for peace without risking its security. Hence the offers of international guarantees reinforced by American guarantees. The massive arms supplied to Israel have been sent with the same purpose of making that nation feel safe. There is still no question that Israel is the strongest power in the area, with overwhelming offensive and defensive strength.

Having made this strength possible, Washington looks to Israel to meet the Arab overtures on a realistic basis, while still under the protective cover of guarantees. It makes the point that this is not 1956 all over again. This time the Arab offers open up a whole new prospect for acceptance of Israel in the Middle East. Part of Secretary Rogers’ mission was to reinforce this view.

At the same time Ambassador Gunnar Jarring’s public request for simultaneous and parallel commitments to withdrawal and peace by each side stands. Israel is asked to withdraw to former boundary lines between Palestine and Egypt, with arrangements for protection of shipping through the Red Sea and Suez. Egypt is to agree to “enter into a peace agreement" and to “secure and recognized boundaries” for Israel which shall not be violated by any action originating in Egypt.

Egyptian acceptance of the Jarring conditions has put Israel into its unexpected new situation. All sides have been giving Israel time to adjust to a new reality. But time is not on Israel’s side, and 1971 is running out.

—GEORGIANA G. STEVENS