Titanic events have altered the whole strtegic outlook in the Middle East during the past year. Within that context, statesmen working political levers at high levels could effect a change in the attitude of Israel toward the Palestinian Arabs.
But the change cannot be brought about by bureaucrats fiddling with bits and pieces of resolutions at the United Nations. Witness the latest fiasco at the U.N. -- with the president having to disavow a resolution endorsed by the American ambassador, who then left the secretary of state to carry the can.
The revolution that ousted the shah of Iran a year ago cast a shadow from the Hindu Kush to the waters of the Nile. Monarchical regimes in the Persian Gulf -- from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia to Oman -- suddenly found themselves vulnerable to Islamic fundamentalism. Submerged ethnic groups in various border lands brought tension to the "northern tier" states running from Turkey through Iraq and Iran to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Russians moved into Afghanistan, partly to protect their stake there and partly to position themselves for further changes. Iraq tensed against Iran, broke ties with Syria and Moscow and looked covetously toward the Persian Gulf. The United States was obliged to work out a whole new strategy for blocking Russia in Afghanistan and propping up the rest of the area, especially the oil states of the Gulf.
Finding a role for Israel in the new strategy is not beyond the wit of man -- especially since the Israelis now have a treaty with Egypt. In return for a role, the Israelis could reasonably be asked to abandon the occupied territory inhabited by Palestinian Arabs to a mixed security force including Egyptians and Jordanians and perhaps Americans. Thus Palestinian pressures on regimes in the Persian Gulf would be eased and the way would be opened for a gradual rapprochement between Israel and Egypt, on the one hand, and the moderate Arab states on the other.
But such arrangements require political dealing at the highest levels. They cannot possibly be worked out at this juncture by the Carter administration. The president himself is absorbed by his reelection campaign. aSecretary of State Cyrus Vance is a beaten man, discredited by the course of events in Afghanistan, demoralized by what has happened in Iran and no longer able to think with clarity.
All foreign governments are at this time putting their serious business with the United States on hold while looking to their political fences. In that spirit, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin last month passed a resolution authorizing Jewish settlement in Hebron, a heavily populated Arab town in occupied territory. The Hebron decision was a pure sop to religious extremists and had no force, since there are almost no settlers available and no money available to settle them. Though the Arabs were upset, they could have easily been put off if the United States had merely abstained on a resolution criticizing Israel at the U.N. Security Council.
But the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, Harold Saunders, and the ambassador at the United Nations, Donald McHenry, are part of the old gang at the State Department that has always believed it can win the hearts of the Arabs and force the Israelis to change their mind by resolutions at the Security Council, drafted a resolution that condemned the Hebron decision and also put into question a whole range of Israeli positions regarding Jerusalem.
The president took the view that the resolution was all right, provided the material on Jerusalem was excised. McHenry and Sauders apparently made amendments that took out some, but not all, of the offending passages. Vance approved the text, and on his say-so -- without reading the resolution -- so did Carter. McHenry voted with the other 14 Security Council members in a unanimous condemnation of the Israelis last Saturday.
Two days later, Carter found out what the resolution said. To avert a tough Israeli protest and soften Jewish opinion in this country, the White House publicly disavowed the resolution. McHenry stood by his handiwork at a press conference in Washington. Vance was thus obliged to accept the blame in a former statement acknowledging a "failure in communication."
The moral of all this is that the United States cannot keep going through the diplomatic motions. Enormous changes are taking place in the Middle East and there are rich possibilities. But they cannot be realized by playing with words. The president is not going to be able to make serious moves until he has acquired more political authority, a clear strategy and a new secretary of state.