Public discussion of our Middle East policy is being increasingly bedeviled by two common fallacies. The first is that a solution to the Palestinian state on the West Bank, is a precondition for any overall Israeli-Arab settlement. The second is that the achievement of such a settlement will result in a significant improvement in the terms of trade between the United States and OPEC, there by ameliorating our enengy crisis.
The establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank will not -- because it cannot -- solve the refugee problem. This is quite evident to Anwar Sadat, to Menachem Begin and to Yasser Arafat, and explains much about their respective foreign policies. It seems less evident to our State Department or to John Connally.
The West Bank is a relatively arid territory one-fourth the size of Massachusetts, with some 700,000 inhabitants, a high birth rate and a limited economic potential. Even now, some 50,000 West Bank Arabs -- approximately one-third of the labor force -- commute daily to Israel for their jobs. How on earth is this territory going to absorb close to 1 million new immigrants -- a figure that assumes that most of the Palestinians now living in Jordan will stay there?
Even with the most generous foreign aid, economic development of this territory will be slow and incremental. Its inadequate water supply by itself guarantees that. Indeed, there exists no plan of economic development that can get much ahead of the growth of the present population, to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants -- and to say nothing, either, of the natural increase in the refugee population, which also has a high birth rate, in the years ahead.
Is it any wonder that, in the period 1948-1967, when Jordan occupied the West Bank, the idea of this area representing a solution to the refugee problem seems not to have occurred to anyone?
A Palestinian state on the West Bank could not help being irridentist, seeing its future in the repossession of Israeli territory. This explains why Arafat will not recognize the territorial integrity of Israel, why Begin resists the idea of a Palestinian state and why Sadat is trying to finesse the whole issue by focusing on "autonomy" rather than sovereignty. These are all rational men who define their interests in terms of Middle Eastern realities. The notion that they are simply "unreasonable," while Americans are uniquely in a position to design a reasonable and comprehensive settlement, is absurd.
If the notion that the West Bank offers a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is absurd, the idea that the high price of OPEC oil can be reduced by any alleviation of Arab-Israeli tensions is preposterous.
OPEC is primarily an economic organism. Many important members of OPEC -- e.g., Nigeria and Indonesia -- are neither Arab nor Middle Eastern. And all members of OPEC have a much keener interest in higher oil prices than in the Israeli-Arab quarrel. How quickly we seem to have forgotten that one of the architects of OPEC was none other than the shah of Iran, who was no political enemy of either Israeli or the United States.
Moreover, to the degree that politics does enter the picture, many of the key Arab and Islamic members of OPEC are at least as much anti-America and anti-West as they are anti-Israel. These include Libya, Algeria, Iraq and -- today -- Iran. Even Saudi Arabia was duly represented at the recent "Third World" conference in Havana -- a conference that paid relatively little attention to Israel and directed its hostility mainly toward the United States. When and if these nations are inclined to use their oil as an instrument of foreign policy, they will do so, Israel or no Israel.
The problems posed for American foreign policy by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the existence of OPEC are as complex as they are critical. This would hardly seem to be the moment to take flight from these problems by embracing "solutions" so illusory as to be more accurately labeled "panaceas."