Throughout their diplomatic campaign to reconvene the Geneva Middle East peace conference and extract an acceptable settlement from Israel, the major Arab states have manuevered on the basis of set of assumptions about this country and its relations to the United States. In a week of conversation with government officials, opposition leaders and other prominent Israelis, however, it became clear that the Arab assumptions are largely incorrect and that the campaign on which they embarked last September is foundering because they failed to foresee how Israel would respond to it.
Egypt, Syria, Jordan and their bankers in Saudi, Arabia have assumed that Israel was so dependent on military and economic aid from the United States it would be forced to submit to an American peace plan, which the Arabs assumed in turn would promote their interests.
The Israelis, however, are making it clear that they are prepared to defy the United States rather compromise on issues they see an vital to their security. Signals emanating from Washington that under certain circumstances the United States might be prepared to admit the Palestine Liberation organization to the Geneva talks, for example, are meeting fiery resistance here. Prime minister Menahem Begin is pledged never to deal with the PLO, which he calls a genocial band of terrorists.
While digging in against possible U.S. pressure, Israeli officials are expressing confidence that they can avoid a direct confrontation with Washington on this or any other issue. They believe the Americans will yield first.
They could cut off our aid, but our calculation is that they won't," said one of Begin's closet advisers. A senior Foreign Ministry official said that "the air has been cleared with the U.S. President Carter knows exactly the parameters this country will accept. I don't say he likes them but he knows what they are."
The Arabs, led by Egypt, have proposed that Israel return to the borders that existed before the 1967 war and that a Palestinian state or entity be created on the relinquished territory and linked in some way with Jordan.
This formula was based on the belief that while Israel would not withdraw from the occupied territories in favor of the PLO, it might be willing to yield them to Jordan, which the Arabs believe Israel sees as less hostile. This also was incorrect.
The Israelis say they have no intention of ever returning to the 1967 borders or of permitting the creation of any Palestinian state on any territory that they might give up. Remembering that Jordan joined the other Arab states in the 1967 war, the Israelis trust Jordan not much more than they trust the Palestinians, and say that even if some political control over the West Bank reverts to Arab hands, they will not give up their security control.
There is a raging internal debate here over how far Israel should go in pressing its claim to sovereignty over the West Bank, but even the moderates opposed to annexation say they would not support a total pullout.
"Perhaps we could give most of it to Jordan in exchange for full peace," said Yigael Yadin, leader of the moderate opposition Democratic Movement for Change, "but a total pullout in favor of the Palestinians, that would be suicide.
Arab leaders understand that the Israelis do not believe their professions of peaceful intent and they have suggested some form of international guarantees or American defense pacts to assure Israel's security after withdrawal from the territories. The Israelis say this shows a failure to understand the very nature of the Jewish state - it exists to be able to protect itself and its citizens, not to rely on others.
The Arabs also miscalculated when they chose to carry on as if the new government headed by Begin were no different from its predecessor.
They had succeeded in putting the Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin on the defensive with their repeated declarations that they were to go to Geneva and exchange peace for territory. Begin, in his short time in office, is seen even by his opponents as having brought Israel out of its diplomatic crouch and into a new sense of confidence by his reaffirmation of Israel's national purpose, his offers to negotiate the issues directly with the Arabs, and his personal popularity.
Arab leaders often argue that they have gone as far as they can toward peace with Israel without getting something in return. Especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it is argued that the Arabs have offered to go to Geneva, have neutralized the hardline states that oppose any negotiations with Israel. have curbed the Palestinian guerrillas and have generally shown themselves to be peaceable moderates. Yet, they are a long way from convincing the Israelis, who see only implacable hostility in which tactics may change but never the basic objective of destroying the Jewish state.
"We don't buy the argument that this group of Arab leaders are moderates," an authoritative government official said. "There is nothing moderate about Assad," a reference to Syrian President Hafez Assad.
The Israelis expected signs of accommodation from Egypt, after the-Sinai disengagement, agreement of 1975, but as this official put it, "we see Egypt in the vanguard of all anti-Israel activities."
By refusing to negotiate directly with the Israelis and by such international acts as threatining reprisals against Portugal for its plan to open an embassy in Tel Aviv, the Arabs have shown their true colors, which are not those of peace, the Israelis argue.
"They used to hope to finish off Israel in one stroke. Now they're trying to do it piece by piece," a high ranking Israeli official said. "They don't understand Israel and they don't understand the nature of our relationship with the U.S. It leads them to total miscalculation."
Many Israelis are anxious about the possibility of breach with the United States. Former Defense Minister Shimon Peres, leader of the Labor opposition, says it is "unwise" for Israel to have anything less than full agreement with Washington on what kind of settlement would be acceptable. Even Peres, however, discounts the possibility that Carter, in his determination to have good relations with the Arab states, would bend Israel's to his will.
"There is clearcut agreement not to have an imposed settlement," he said. Besides, imposed solutions must be solutions.Imposition for itself is not the answer. And if it's a solution, you don't have to impose it."
The Israelis were stung by American criticism of Begin's decision to grant legal status to three Jewish settlements on the West Bank that had been set up in defiance of the previous government. Informed sources here say, however that Begin has quietly shelved his commitment to set up 20 more such settlements this summer in an apparent gesture to American opinion.
The arabs have made it an article of faith that partial settlements, interim of bilateral agreements, step-by-step diplomacy are no longer possible, that they are relics of the Kissinger era and that peace can be achieved only in a comprehensive settlement at Geneva that would include complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.
On this fundamental point, as on so many others, their perception differs from that of the Israelis. Here it seems entirely logical to conclude that under the present circumstances Geneva would be futile and the only alternative is to retreat to partial or step-by-step approaches.
"If through Arab resistance" Geneva proves to be impossible, Begin told a group of American and Canadian supporters, "we can continue by other means. Let the U.S. use its good offices in Jerusalem, in Cairo, in Damascus, in Amman, in Beirut if need be. Let the mixed commissions be formed" as he had previously proposed and as Egypt had agreed only to be overruled by Syria.
Begin and his advisers insist they are ready for peace and they want peace, but they have totally rejected the Arab vision of how it can be achieved. In private conversations, they say they are confident that the Arabs will change their vision, which may mean that Israel's understanding of the Arabs is as flawed as the Arab understanding of Israel.