"The meek shall inherit the West Bank" is a phrase I once used jokingly on a voice-level test for a "Meet the Press" interview with Secretary of State Cyprus Vance. Now, having toured the area again, it strikes me as not a bad guidelines.
The West Bank of the Jordan River - the territories known in the Bible as Judaea and Samaria - remains the key to a peace settlement in the Middle East. That settlement can only be achieved if the territories are handed off in a benign way to a benign sovereign - that is to say in slow stages to King Hussein of Jordan.
For intrinsic importance, the West Bank ranks with the great nothings of world history. The territory (less than 3,000 square miles) is smaller than some ranches in Texas. Barren hills and dry creeks compose the landscape. There is no serious industry in the area. Because the territory is landlocked, the agricultural produce tends to be high-priced exports. The population is only 700,000.
Bu the 700,000 are Palestinian Arabs inhabiting such historic shrines as Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Jericho. They constitute the largest single community of Palestinian Arabs in the world. Thus the West Bank is the heart of any Palestinian entity or homeland - the core of a solution to the Palestinian problem.
Three different arrangements for sovereignty over the West Bank come quickly to mind. One possibility is local autonomy under the rule of the Israelis, who have occupied the West Bank since the six-day War of 1967.
But despite a relatively mild occupation, local opinion is unmistakably hostile to the Israelis. In the municipal elections of last year, six out of the seven major towns picked mayors partial to the Palestine Liberation Organization. So by taking over the West Bank, Israel would only add a new burden to its already crushing load.
The second and most obvious posibility, is to establish the West Bank as an independant Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan. But judging at least by the 1976 elections, such a state would be dominated by radical elements of the PLO. They would not have economic difficulties of work on, and unfulfilled dreams of merger with the large Palestinian Arab Communities in Israel to the west and Jordan to the east.
Thus an independent Palestine would probably move very quickly to make trouble for either Jordan or Israel. It would be a hotbed for turmoil, subversion and war.
The possibility is local autonomy under the rule of King Hussein of Jordan. Jordan occupied the West Bank from 1948, when Israel became a state, until 1967. The king has ties with many of the important Palestinian families. He and his forces present a strong barrier to the radical wing of the PLO. They are moderate toward Israel and closely connected with Saudi Arabia which also against the radical elements of the PLO.
For all these reasons the Jordanian option presents by far the best long-term bet for the West Bank. To be sure, a hand-off from Israeli to Jordanian control cannot come immediately.
Israeli's security concerns are such that the turnover will have to come in stages - first, a relinquishment of certain functions to the local populations; then, over several years, the turnover of governmental responsibility and territory to King Hussein.
But if that goal is distant, it is vital that it be fixed with precision as the Israel-Egyptian talks get under way in Cairo. For targeting a West Bank solution adds an additional objective of crucial importance to what might slide into a bilateral accord.
It obliges Israel to offer Egypt concessions on the West Bank that President Sadat can pass on to King Hussein. It gives Hussein an offer he cannot afford to refuse - an offer to regain Arabs lands - as justification entering the Egyptian-Israeli talks.
His presence could not only thicken the Arab element at the talks and break up the anti-Egyptian rejectionist front. It would point toward an accord embracing Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the moderate Palestinians with backing from the United States and Saudi Arabia. It would pre-figure the pro-Western solution.