It seems like only yesterday (maybe because it was around this time last summer) that everything was supposed to be going swimmingly for the United States in the Middle East. By invading Lebanon, we were told, Israel had restored American power and prestige in the area. We should be grateful. So went the official Israeli line.
It was spoon-fed here by Israeli Ambassador Moshe Arens, now the defense minister, and swallowed whole by Israel's American camp followers: the Palestine Liberation Organization had been destroyed. The Syrians had been shown up as feeble and the Arabs as faithless to the Palestinian cause. The Soviets were washed up as a force to reckon with in that part of the world, their weapons so demonstrably inferior to the American product that no Arab would henceforth kowtow to Moscow.
If anybody still thought Camp David constituted a solemn Israeli undertaking to negotiate "full autonomy" for the West Bank and Gaza in the interests of providing a Palestinian homeland, the kingdom of Jordan would serve that purpose nicely. Israel would soon shore up its northern border by making peace with a sovereign, independent Lebanon, as it had done with Egypt to the south.
Looking back now on that Israeli perspective, what's interesting is not just that it proved to be preposterous. The Syrians have been fully rearmed with more sophisticated stuff by the Soviets and now hold the key to Lebanon's fate; the Soviets, more than ever, hold the key to Syria, and by their increased military presence there, they also have a far stronger handle on the Middle East; Israel's inability to extricate itself from Lebanon is wrecking its economy and roiling its internal politics; the PLO has not so much been crushed as radicalized, and the worst passions in the Arab world have been inflamed as well.
So the prospectus was false, but it was also presumptuous. For when the Israelis were telling us of the grand opportunity they had provided, if only U.S. policy-makers had the wit to seize it, what they were really saying was that the United States had come to count for next to nothing in the Middle East. In retrospect, what we were seeing was almost a role reversal in the U.S.-Israel relationship, with Israel working its will upon a servile United States.
I'm not suggesting that, by reason of Israeli dependency, it ought to work entirely the other way around--or that the disunited Arab world, with all its intransigence and mindless hostility, is blameless for the mess we see today. I'm talking about a relationship between professed allies and about the necessary degree of decent and mutual respect, of common concern for common interests.
That's what's missing--and not just on the Israeli side. U.S. subservience suggests in its own way an absence of respect. You could sense this on both sides in the non-visit of a demonstrably vigorous Prime Minister Menachem Begin for unexplained "personal" reasons a week or so ago and the substitute mission to Washington (at the administration's invitation) of Arens and his Cabinet colleague, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Remember that there is still on the table Ronald Reagan's year-old "initiative" to restart and revise the Camp David process. Begin gave it the back of his hand by calling it a "mortal threat" to Israeli security. Also still lying out there is the recommended condition that was attached to the Reagan plan: that good-faith negotiation not be compromised by continuing Jewish settlement of the West Bank. Begin gave that the back of his hand by stepping up the pace of settlements, and de facto annexation.
Now you would have thought that during three days of talks with Begin's closest ministers, the Reagan administration might just be sufficiently ticked off to bring this matter up. Isn't it worth more than the "one or two sentences" given over to it, according to an anonymous but authoritative "senior Israeli official" in Jerusalem? But no. "We did not have time to discuss philosophy."
Philosophy! One can think of no clearer way of expressing the Begin government's contempt for the Reagan administration's continuing peace- making exertions--to say nothing of American authority and influence.
And why not, given the administration's apparent willingness to look only with favor on Israeli proposals, advanced by Arens and Shamir, for substantially more generous American military aid terms? The aim is to switch more of the money from loans to outright grants in order to ease Israel's growing financial crisis. But one effect will be to put Israel's own defense industry in a stronger position to compete with U.S. arms producers in world markets.
Historians will be a long time arguing precisely how and when it happened that the United States lost its grip over the Middle East. But surely they will agree that something fundamental had obviously happened by the summer of 1983. That's when an Israeli government felt free to wave away as some kind of airy abstraction the central element in Ronald Reagan's first and only comprehensive contribution to the search for peace in the Middle East.