The Suez model is creeping toward the center of debate over American policy in the Middle East. On the Hill, in the press and elsewhere, people are harking back to the Suez campaign of 1956. The French and British obeyed United Nations calls to pull out of Egypt at once, but Israel set conditions and did not drop them and withdraw until President Eisenhower threatened sanctions.
So why doesn't President Reagan start cutting off Israel's nearly $3 billion a year in aid in order to make the Israelis cooperate in Lebanon and on his new proposals for dealing with the Palestinian issue? This is a familiar question within the administration, which has its own advocates of a squeeze. The president, however, is set against it, and this, it is said at the White House, is why:
Reagan early on elevated Israel's status to that of "ally," and that means something special to him: a shared commitment to democratic values and to large strategic interests. Allies are supported, all ways, without strings. That's the best way to establish confidence, to cultivate a sense of mutual responsibility. In return, we ask only that when they act to protect their major interests, they take our major interests into account.
The president believes, the White House word goes, that on his watch Israel has acted a half dozen times without taking American interests into due account, most recently in West Beirut. But he still regards Israel as an ally, and he has not altered his fundamental commitment to Israel's security.
The impression conveyed is that the president has personally moved the American relationship with Israel to a plane of rare favor that the Israelis have failed either to understand or to reciprocate, and that he is personally baffled, even somewhat wounded, but still determined to withstand the strong pressures running to make the United States go the other way.
How then is Israel to be brought around? By persuasion, by negotiation, by providing an example of respect for an ally's interests, by pressing the advantages of peace and holding up to Israel the changes in the Arab world that make a wider peace more feasible, by showing that American concern for Israeli security is not conditioned simply on Israeli support of American policy, by bringing a responsive partner (Jordan) to the negotiating table, by playing the strings of public opinion in Israel as Israel plays the strings in the United States.
All this is very well, you may say, but does it not invite the Israelis, especially Menachem Begin, to play Reagan for a fool? Begin has just rebuffed his appeal for a settlements freeze, for instance. The president's credibility is on the line.
To which the White House responds: establishing credibility is more complicated than that. What kind of credibility would we have, with Arabs or Israelis, if we treated allies and friends as mere clients, demanding that they toe the line and punishing them if they did not? The way you get Arabs and others to accept that we mean business is to hang in with the Israelis and not take no for an answer.
This approach is pure Reagan: dividing the world into friends and foes, accommodating the one and pressuring the other. It is simple, but there is an aura of principle to it.
No less important from a practical standpoint, it is also consistent with the nature of Israel, or so I would argue. The Israeli agreement to give Egypt almost everything it sought, once Anwar Sadat showed he was serious, suggests strongly to me that Israelis would confound themselves (and us) and bend again if they had another serious offer. The structure of Israeli democracy and the longing of the Israeli people for peace, notwithstanding the crosscurrents, make it so.
And if they don't? There is principle too, in using power and, yes, pressure, for a legitimate national purpose. Eisenhower's Suez policy was a disaster: he forced a weak Israel to pull back without asking Egypt to accept it in return, thereby guaranteeing the next war. Reagan's plan, however, overcomes that defect by linking Israeli concessions to a negotiated peace. If Israel refused to give the Reagan plan a fair shake under conditions of persuasion, it would have only itself to blame if we turned up the heat.