An "Arab-Israeli war" is going on among President-elect Ronald Reagan's advisers and constituencies. The "Arabs," or the "Bechtel group, named after George Shultze's corporate connection, argue for a strategy centered on the Gulf Arabs and for a hard push on the Palestine question. The "Israelis" prefer a strategy centered on Egypt and Israel and a go-slow diplomacy. Reagan has instincts and a record from which both can draw comfort. You can read about their contest in the papers.
I hope neither side wins. I say this not out of contentment with the status quo or out of arithmetical down-the-middle "evenhandedness." It is because the either-or formulation of "Arabs" and "Israelis" block the broader approach that alone might help solve the problem.
Jimmy Carter did marvelously in facilitating an Egyptian-Israeli peace and in helping bring the Palestinian question to center stage, in Israel as elsewhere. But his particular emphasis on West Bank autonomy, most people think, has reached a dead end. Though not right away, Reagan has to come up with a new approach. In speeches he's leaned to the "Jordanian option" -- luring King Hussein with an offer of West Bank partition -- that the Israeli Labor Party, the favorite in next year's elections, also favors. This imparts a pleasing symmetry to the changing of the guard.
I like the Jordanian option just for its promise of forcing of reshuffling of the cards. But however eager some Israelis may be to unload a million Arabs on King Hussein, or at least to put him on the onus of refusing to accept them, no one should imagine he is panting to receive them without demanding at the same time adjustments, including some in East Jerusalem, that will be extremely painful and divisive for Israel. The American problem then becomes how to induce Israel to accept the scale of changes necessary in order to give the Jordanian option a fighting chance.
Reagan should think hard about this. If his administration doesn't intend to stand up to the political heat that the Israelis will surely turn up, then it is foolish to start down the Carter road of encouraging the belief that the Americans will see the problem through. The resulting disillusionment and demonstration of impotence will be too costly. Better simply to stand off and look for ways to detach the U.S. from direct responsibility for the situation on the West Bank. It won't be cost-free.
There may be, however, a way to soften the Israels' reluctance to make the requisiste reciprocal concessions. Basically, it's to pay them off in security, the way that the disengagement agreements were won by pledges of American arms and aid and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was won by more such pledges and by different American guarantees.
The key for Reagan may lie precisely in one of those Carter guarantees: the Camp David promise to provide in the Sinai a United Nations peace-keeping force, a sure non-starter, or alternatively a multinational force once Israeli withdrawl is completed in the spring of 1982. The idea would be to put the United States into that multinational force and to let that force use the two Sinai superbases at Eitam and Etzion (plus Sharm) that the Israelis would otherwise knock down into civilian airfields before withdrawing.
Israel's distaste for a nearby (or Israel-based) American military presence weakened when Moscow quit Egypt and evaporated when Moscow invaded Afghanistan. Prime Minister Begin now hopes to bring off Israeli-Egyptian-American negotiations to alter the Camp David provision limiting the Sinai airbases to "civilian use." President Sadat's distaste for anything smacking of old colonial-style foreign bases is principled and politically inescapable. But he pines to deepen Egypt's strategic partnership with Washington, and there is an evident precedent in the political formulas that already permit American forces to make temporary use of other Egyptian military facilities.
My point, though, is to go beyond what strategic advantages the Sinai locations might offer the United States and its friends. I mean to underline the psychological and political reassurances that an American Sinai role might offer Israel in an accomodation will the Palestinians -- if, of course, the Palestinians, too, seek accomodation. Would it not help to have the United States close by?
Please stipulate the caveats. I am simply trying to explore whether the Reagan administration can make a serious run-up to the problem of Palestinian-Israeli coexistence, even while it moves, as it surely will anyway, to repair strategic disabilities. I am also trying to explore whether any Mideast policy that Reagan adopts will work.
Note: I was off last week in saying that Robert Tucker of Johns Hopkins University now argues that American weakness in the Gulf compels Washington to consider tactical nuclear war. He said Washington should improve its conventional capabilities to deal with all but a determined Soviet assault, and, against such an assault, should set a credible nuclear-tripwire policy -- on the assumption that our position in the Gulf is the key to our position in Europe, and in the world.