The Looming War in the Middle East and How to Avert It

The negotiating track Secretary Kissinger has been following in the Middle East has now come to a dead end. If the stalemate continues, there will almost certainly be another Arab-Israeli war within the next nine months. Since a new war would be more dangerous than any previous Middle Eastern contest, it is imperative that we promptly devise a fresh line of action.

When America undertook to bring about an Arab-Israeli settlement following the October, 1973, war, there were two assumptions on which a strategy might be based. One was that the Soviet Union favored the continuance of turbulence in the Middle East so long as that did not threaten a direct U.S.-USSR confrontation. The second was that the Soviet Union considered détente so important, and the dangers of a head-on collision with the United States so grave, that it would prefer a stable Middle East provided it could play a coequal role in bringing about that stability.

“Shuttle diplomacy”

If we believed the first assumption, then the Soviet Union could certainly be expected to try to sabotage any efforts at settlement; in that event, America should seek to limit Soviet influence and insulate the Kremlin from settlement discussions. But if we assumed that the Soviets would prefer a stable Middle East so long as they played a respectable part in bringing it about, we should have promptly enlisted their help.

What we in fact did was to take the more traditional course. Though Henry Kissinger expressed his belief that the Soviets would not obstruct if they were allowed to participate, he shaped his tactics on the opposite assumption. By embarking on “shuttle diplomacy,” he quite deliberately shut the Russians out of the act. Reduced to the humiliating expedient of dropping into Damascus each time Mr. Kissinger left town, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko was effectively insulated from the negotiations, while Kissinger played the role of mediator, intermediary, and overseer as first Egypt and then Syria undertook an initial phase of bilateral negotiations with Israel.

From the outset it seemed clear that the Kissinger approach was pragmatic and improvised. He never had a clear plan as to how he might bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. By disposing of one issue after another through a series of bilateral settlements, he apparently hoped to create a momentum of success that would enable him to break through entrenched opposition and achieve the final resolution of even the most difficult issues. But how this would be achieved was always murky, for though Kissinger could go partway with bilateral diplomacy, the critical substantive questions could be resolved only in the multilateral setting of the Geneva Conference, with the participation of all the principal Arab states, including the most radical, and with the Russians acting as co-chairman.

There is no doubt that when all that was involved was the redeployment of military forces, Kissinger did use his special talent as a friend of both sides with brilliant effectiveness, arranging the disengagement of the armies first on the Egyptian and then on the Syrian front. But the tough issues, such as the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state, engage the interests of all of the Arabs—as does, for quite different reasons, the obdurate issue of Jerusalem. Since the Palestinians have spread out over the whole face of the Arab world, and in many instances now occupy high positions at the second levels of Arab governments, no Arab state can turn a deaf ear to their importunings. At the same time, the issue of Jerusalem involves all the Arabs as Moslems, because Jerusalem contains major holy places of Islam such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which the prophet Muhammad is supposed to have ascended to heaven.

In order to keep the momentum of negotiating going, Secretary Kissinger planned, as the third phase of negotiations (after the Egyptian and Syrian disengagements), to initiate further talks between Egypt and Israel to arrange the relinquishment of additional acreage of Sinai sand, probably in exchange for some evidence of Egyptian nonbelligerency. By putting that phase behind him, Kissinger hoped to gain further momentum for an approach to the Palestinian issue, a political settlement between Syria and Israel involving the Golan Heights, and finally, a resolution of the delicate question of Jerusalem. It was as though he hoped that by gaining sufficient speed in racing over a series of fairly low hurdles, he would be able at the end of the track to jump over a house - or, to put it more precisely, a whole series of houses.

That President Sadat of Egypt was willing to follow Kissinger at least partway down the course was clear. Yet the more activist Arab states-Algeria, Svria, Iraq, Libya, and even Kuwait—do not trust the Egyptians, and resent what they regard as the Egyptians’ presumption in seeking to speak for the Arab world. They are particularly suspicious that Egypt might negotiate a solution of its own special problems and thereafter withdraw its pressure on the Israelis.

Under the circumstances, the best that Kissinger could possibly expect was that the Arabs would let a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli discussion go forward on condition that the Palestinian issue be tackled more or less simultaneously. But if he was to keep that issue out of the Geneva Conference, he would have to get the Arab states to recognize King Hussein as responsible for negotiating the fate of the West Bank, which had been under his rule up to the 1967 war. That was, of course, a sticky point, because although several of the Arab states would like to recognize Hussein’s right to speak for the Palestinians, there are intense pressures within the Arab world to support the Palestinian Liberation Organization. On the weekend of October 26, the Rabat Arab summit conference emphatically settled the question; it made clear not only that the PLO would play a leading role in the negotiation, but that the Palestinian state that emerged would be under PLO control.

That definitely brought the Kissinger strategy to a halt, because if the Arabs insist on turning the West Bank over to the PLO under its leader, Yasir Arafat, the Israelis will flatly refuse to negotiate. Not only does Arafat preside over an uneasy coalition of moderate and more radical factions, but the clearly defined goal of the PLO, which Arafat resoundingly reaffirmed before the United Nations General Assembly on November 13, is the creation of a secular Palestinian state embracing the West Bank and Israel itself— which would mean the end of an independent Israel as a Jewish state. Today even Hussein (having been guaranteed $300 million a year by King Faisal) has recognized the Rabat formula, and is restructuring his government to give effect to it.

What Rabat meant

The facts make clear the basis for Israeli concern. There are now almost one million Arabs in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Northern Sinai, in addition to 460,000 Arabs and Druzes in Israel proper—a total of about 1.5 million, equivalent to sixty percent of the Jewish population of Israel. Within the whole of the Arab world there are estimated to be three to five million Palestinians—no one knows how many—and it is widely assumed that if an autonomous Palestinian state were declared, a substantial number might return, which would mean drowning the Jewish population in an Arab majority. Thus it is unlikely that any Israeli government could survive if it agreed to negotiate with the PLO.

Today, after the Arab summit conference at Rabat and Arafat’s UN speech on November 13, it is clear that Kissinger’s conception of a step-by-step solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is now obsolete. If we do not promptly adopt a new strategy, we can expect nothing more than a continuing stalemate while both sides feverishly seek to build up their military might. So far the United States has poured a large quantity of sophisticated arms into Israel, and it is probably stronger than before the October War, while the Soviet Union has not only replaced Syria’s losses, but has provided it with MIG-23s, longrange surface-to-surface (SCUD) missiles, and the most modern tanks.

From the Arab point of view, it would of course be better to delay the fighting at least until the fall of 1975. At Rabat the Arab leaders decided to grant $2.35 billion to provide more arms for the “front-line” states adjacent to Israel, and during this coming year, one can expect a substantial increase in Arab fighting power. But it seems unlikely that the Israelis will permit such a delay. They lost the advantage of surprise a year ago last October, when they failed to interpret their intelligence reports properly, and they are determined not to let that happen again. Thus it seems quite possible that the Israelis will launch a preemptive attack on Syria, and possibly Egypt, early next spring. If that occurs, the war will be quite different from the campaign of October, 1973. Both sides now have surface-to-surface missiles, capable of reaching Jerusalem from Cairo and vice versa, and some of the SCUD missiles on the Arab side are mobile, which makes it difficult to knock them out. As a consequence, one can expect attacks on Middle Eastern cities and on such targets as the oil depot at Haifa, attacks which have not been a feature of Middle Eastern warfare up till now.

For the United States, the outbreak of war would pose some hard choices. Since the Israelis would probably appear as the attacker, their moral leverage would be diminished not only in Western Europe but also in the United States. Unless the Israelis could achieve a blitzkrieg, they would shortly exhaust their limited stocks of weapons and ammunition. Yet this time it would be extremely difficult for the United States to launch an airlift. In October, 1973, American C5A’s could be refueled over the ocean by tankers from the Lajes base in the Azores, but given Portugal’s changing political stance, the Portuguese are not likely to permit us to use their air bases again. In addition, there is doubt as to our capability to resupply the Israelis with tanks. We stripped our armed forces for the October, 1973, airlift, and our monthly tank production is shockingly limited. Meanwhile, the Syrians could almost certainly count on a Soviet airlift such as occurred when Turkey granted the Soviet Union overflight rights.

The American dilemma

Particularly if the tide of battle tended to go against the Israelis, America would be put on a difficult spot. For one thing, war would immediately and automatically precipitate another oil embargo, and this time it might be far more severe than on the last occasion. Unfortunately, this promises to be an exceptionally cold winter.

That the United States would permit Israel to be defeated seems to many Americans unthinkable, not only because of America’s special relationship to Israel and the deep emotional involvement of the American Jewish community, but because it would be a major triumph for the Soviet Union. In addition, the United States might expect pressure for an American military intervention from many who are already urging that we seize the oil production of the Middle East to save the West from bankruptcy.

Yet I seriously doubt that President Ford, or any American President, would launch a military venture in the area. The current situation is far different from that in 1956, when the British and French mounted an attack against Egypt which America aborted. Then the Mediterranean was still a Western lake, but today elements of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, which comprises twenty submarines and approximately seventy fighting surface vessels, are constantly patrolling alongside our Sixth Fleet, with air cover from bases in Iraq and Somalia. In addition, we are now in an era of nuclear parity, not superiority, and Soviet missiles are targeted on every Western capital as well as on Jerusalem.

So we had better explore the other option before the Middle East once more goes up in flames. We had better, in other words, test an assumption implicit in all our talk about détente—that the Soviets would really like to see a stable Middle East provided they could play a part in bringing it about.

We might approach the problem by emphasizing to the Soviet Union the acute dangers of the current situation. If another war should break out—and particularly if the tide of battle were to turn against Israel America would be under enormous pressure to intervene. Thus, if the Soviets mean what they said in the Declaration of Basic Principles they signed with us in 1972, and in the Agreement for the Prevention of Nuclear War of 1973, they should join us in developing a settlement of the Arab-Israeli issue within the framework of Resolution 242 of the United Nations Security Council, approved November 22, 1967. That resolution, for which the Soviets voted, called for an end to belligerency and “respect for, and acknowledgement of, the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every state in the area and respect for the right of all to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries, free from threats or acts of force.”

To agree with Moscow on the practical determination of “secure and recognized boundaries” should not-after all this time-be too difficult, provided the settlement was guaranteed jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union. In addition, it might be necessary to provide for joint Soviet-American patrols of buffer areas. Finally, we might propose that the COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) nations and the United States formally commit themselves to send no more arms into the area, and that we undertake to persuade our Western European allies to join in that commitment.

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Whether the Soviet Union would be willing to participate in such a common effort cannot be predicted with assurance, but we should certainly try out the proposal. It would be a solid test of the sincerity and significance of détente, and there is some reason to believe the Kremlin would go along. After all, it was Brezhnev who first put forward the idea of a combined Soviet-United States military intervention a year ago last October, when the Egyptian Third Army was encircled and Moscow proposed a joint expedition to pull the contending forces apart. Though Secretary Kissinger overreacted at that time by stimulating a worldwide alert, there is no apparent reason why the Soviets should be less enthusiastic about joining with America now. From the Soviets’ point of view, such a joint operation would provide one more bit of proof that they are a superpower coequal with America—a recognized status they are extremely anxious to achieve.

Quite possibly, such a proposal might offend those Americans still bent on keeping the Soviet Union out of the Middle East, but that fight was lost as far back as the Suez Crisis in 1956, when we forced the British and French to withdraw. Today the Russians are already a significant force in the area. They are well entrenched in Syria and Iraq, and they are resuming their role as military supplier of Egypt. Thus, the existence of Soviet elements in a joint buffer patrol would not add much weight to their existing presence. Nor would such an arrangement be wholly unprecedented; after all, Soviet-American participation in combined patrols worked successfully in Vienna for many years.

Obviously, it would be desirable if the proposal could be given an appropriate blessing by the United Nations, and with some work on both sides, that should be feasible, even though the Council has now been enlarged to fifteen, of whom five members are, by courtesy and practice, drawn from the nations of the Afro-Asian bloc. It is possible, of course, that China would interpose a veto, but we should not let that block the carrying out of the plan.


What is essential is that we not become the prisoners of our own slogans. For a long while it has been fashionable to denounce anything suggesting an “imposed settlement,” and this has been a central theme of Israeli politicians. Yet the major nations of the world have an obligation not to stand passively by while a new war flames in one of the world’s most sensitive and strategic areas—and besides, the problem seems one more of semantics than of substance.

When the drafters of the United Nations Charter met at Dumbarton Oaks, and later at San Francisco, the United States delegates contended that the Council should not be given the power to “impose settlements.” It should be able to do anything, everything, to “keep” the peace, but not to “prescribe” it.

Yet, since others insisted that a rigid adherence to this principle was unrealistic, the issue was compromised at the end of the day by empowering the Council, in the event the parties to a dangerous dispute failed to settle it by negotiation or other peaceful means, “to recommend such terms of settlement as it may consider appropriate.”

Under this provision, the Security Council could set out in detail the terms on which a dangerous dispute should be settled. In the language of the art, however, those terms would be only a “recommendation.” not a “decision”; yet quite possibly, that distinction is not so important as it seems. Sir Charles Webster, a distinguished English jurist who played an important role for the Foreign Office in the conferences that evolved the Charter, described the situation accurately: “. . . at San Francisco it was made quite clear that the Security Council itself could decide what the terms of a settlement ought to be. The question as to how far this right extends is a controversial one, but, in my view, the Security Council has the power to impose a settlement on the parties to a dispute, even if this means the alteration of their legal rights, provided that it determines that such a settlement is necessary for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Obviously, the question is not whether the Council can resort to mandatory sanctions to enforce its judgment as to the shape and content of a fair settlement. No responsible national leader wants or expects the global powers—the United Slates and the Soviet Union —to treat the Middle East as the Concert of Europe treated Crete and other small countries in the nineteenth century. But in the rare situation when the United States and the Soviet Union can reach agreement on a solution for a major problem which a majority of the members of the Security Council accept as within the principles of the Charter, they should not be condemned to helplessness—watching with impotent dismay while the temperature of a whole strategic area of the world moves near the flash point.

Today it is moving toward that point rapidly, so if we are going to undertake a shift in policy, we had better act quickly, before the situation gets completely out of hand. The mood of the Arab leaders at the Rabat conference had an ominous overtone. They seemed to be saying that with their vast new wealth, they no longer needed to make many concessions, either to Israel or to the United States. They could now buy the military clout to force acceptance of their most extreme demands.

One lesson we should have learned from the experience of past months is that highly personalized diplomacy is effective only in a bilateral setting; it has limited value in a complex situation involving many countries. Thus the attempt to settle the Arab-Israeli issue by shutting out both the more activist Arab states and the Soviet Union was predestined to failure. “Shuttle diplomacy” could be used to adjust minor technical issues, such as the redeployment of armies on individual battlefronts, but there was no practical way to apply the technique to the hard substantive issues that involve all Arab states.

Unhappily, we have lost many months in learning that lesson, and time is not running on the side of peace. With almost unlimited funds at their disposal, the Middle Eastern countries are frantically engaged in building up huge military machines, while the major industrial nations, with the exception of Japan, all vie with one another to pour arms into the region, and the Soviet Union arms Syria for its own strategic purposes. That is a far from happy prospect, for if one looks far enough into the future, it is hard to envisage an arms race of such magnitude that will not lead some nation somewhere down the line to use the weapons it has procured.

Let us, then, be quite realistic. Unless we can develop some common approach with the Soviet Union, the danger that the Middle East may become a Balkan-like situation, involving the superpowers in a nuclear confrontation, cannot be lightly dismissed.