Too little attention has been paid to Ronald Reagan's well-prepare recital of the goals of his evolving Middle East policy in his press conference last week. He said that the United States hoped to end the bloodshed in Lebanon, restore a government there, clear out all the foreign forces, tranquillize the Lebanese-Israeli border and:
"...to once and for all, when these other things are accomplished, once and for all to deal with the problem of the Palestinians, and settle that problem within the proposals and the suggestions that were made in the Camp David accords."
I skipped past these words when the president spoke them on June 30. Going back, however, I am convinced that if he means them or--perhaps more to the point--if he can be held to them and given help in turning them into reality, then he has made an immensely significant turn.
These words supply the piece that has been missing from all the formulas that have been bandied about for a fresh approach to the Mideast in the wake of the war in Lebanon: evidence of a presidential understanding of what needs to be done and of a presidential commitment to do it.
To which I say: go for it.
Reagan is fundamentally right in altering the emphasis of his policy in the area from the pursuit of an anti-communist "strategic consensus" to a quest for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Suffice it to say that the war in Lebanon demonstrated the irrelevance of the earlier ordering of priorities. Without a lot of heavy breathing, the president seems to have drawn exactly the proper conclusion.
He is also right in setting aside, again quietly, his longstanding ambivalence toward the Camp David accords, which he has now explicitly affirmed as the vehicle of American policy. I have never understood whether Reagan hung back because he objected to the full role Camp David offered the Palestinians or because he did not wish to put a seal of approval on Jimmy Carter's handiwork.
He could get away with disparaging Camp David, without offering any alternative, while he felt no urgency about the Palestinian question. But once he felt urgency, I surmise, he had to accept that to replace Camp David would lose an impossible amount of time and waste American political capital on argument over procedure.
Many people in the Arab world, Europe and elsewhere, have long ago written off Camp David. But I suspect their true objection is not to the agreement as such but to what they have perceived as an inadequate American dedication to what Palestinians might get out of it.
Reagan spoke only in outline the other day. He appeared to be offering a package.
To the Israelis he was saying: the United States is willing not only to take the heat for your Lebanese operation but also to use the opening it provided to restore Lebanon and to "guarantee" the Lebanese-Israeli border. In turn, you Israelis must give the Palestinian part of the Camp David accords the fair chance that Menachem Begin promised when he negotiated and signed them.
To the Palestinians he was saying: if you cooperate with American purposes in Lebanon, then "when these other things are accomplished" the United States will help you get what Camp David offered on the West Bank and Gaza.
There are great difficulties. What Israel plainly had in mind in Lebanon, besides securing its northern frontier, was to intimidate the West Bank-Gaza Palestinians and thrust upon them a form of autonomy mocking the original Begin promise. If Reagan is as serious as top policymakers say--and we should know this quite soon--then a new stage in American-Israeli relations is due.
A new stage in American-Palestinian relations is also conceivable--faintly but in my view distinctly conceivable. What Reagan called the "armed PLO" is in ruins: defeated by the Israelis, abandoned by all the other Arabs, spurned by Reagan and most Americans. To what might be termed the political PLO, however, Reagan offers a tremendous incentive: the military way failed you utterly, he says, so accept the only alternative, the political way, and see what it will do for you.