One of Jimmy Carter’s talents, both as a candidate for the Presidency and now as President, has been the ability to state controversial issues in such a manner that each of two conflicting parties can believe he has taken its side. This is the case, certainly, with the President’s pronouncements on the Middle East. Yet despite all the attendant ambiguousness, there are always a number of distinct points to be discerned in what Carter has to say, provided one can separate the core from the periphery. Now that, with the victory of the Likud coalition in Israel’s elections and the formation of a new government there, the condition of U.S.-Israel relations is once again on the agenda, it would seem particularly useful to try to ascertain just what the position of the Carter administration is on the Middle East, how this position differs from that of previous administrations, and what the current drift of U.S. policy portends for the future.



During the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter’s views on the Middle East became known only gradually. Until late in the primaries, Carter seems to have been mistrusted by many American Jews, who generally gravitated to other Democratic candidates better known and considered more reliable on issues of special concern to the Jewish community, including Israel. As the campaign progressed, however, Carter began to speak out in ever more detailed and distinct fashion on the Middle East, and what he had to say was very reassuring to supporters of Israel. Thus in a major address on June 6, 1976, he asserted unequivocally that the precondition for peace in the Middle East was a change in the Arab attitude toward Israel:

Now this change of attitude on the part of the Arab states must be reflected in tangible and concrete actions including first of all the recognition of Israel, which they have not yet done; secondly, diplomatic relations with Israel; third, a peace treaty with Israel; fourth, open frontiers with Israel’s neighbors; lastly, an end to the embargo and official hostile propaganda against the State of Israel. . . . Final borders between Israel and its neighbors should be determined in direct negotiations between the parties and they should not be imposed from outside.

On the Palestinians, the candidate was also quite explicit in endorsing an approach which seemed very close to the one then favored by the Israeli government:

There ought to be territories ceded for the use of the Palestinians. I think they should be part of Jordan and be administered by Jordan. I think half the people in Jordan are Palestinians themselves. And that would be my own preference.

Israel’s friends could not have been more pleased with these statements, as well as with the position taken by the candidate on foreign aid to Israel, on the question of arms sales to the Arab states, on oil and OPEC, and on the Arab boycott. By the end of the campaign, it was difficult to conceive of a more pro-Israel candidate than Jimmy Carter.

Once Carter became President, he began to explore possibilities for his own Arab-Israeli policy. The enterprise began with a series of trips. First the President sent his Secretary of State on a fact-finding tour to the Middle East, then the administration invited the key Middle East leaders to Washington. In the course of these meetings, as well as on other occasions over the last months, Carter has expressed his own views of what an ultimate Arab-Israeli settlement should look like. Taken together, they amount to a series of principles that are apparently intended to guide future American efforts.

First, Israel must have defensible, secure, and mutually recognized borders, but these ought to represent only “minor adjustments” from the pre-Six-Day War boundaries. Israel’s actual “defense” lines, however, might be wider than the legal boundaries defined by the settlement; Carter appears to have in mind zones or monitoring stations manned by international or perhaps even Israeli forces.

Second, Carter believes in an “ultimate commitment to complete peace in the Middle East,” in which he includes “the opening up of borders with free trade, tourist travel, cultural exchange between Israel and its neighbors.”

Third, the Palestinians are entitled to a “homeland.” At the town meeting in Clinton, Massachusetts, in March, Carter called for this, although later he said he meant that “some provision has got to be made for the Palestinians, in the framework of the nation of Jordan or by some other means.” By the time of his meeting with Syria’s President Assad in early May, Carter was saying, more directly, “There must be a resolution of the Palestine problem and a homeland for the Palestinians.” To which, however, he again later added: “The exact definition of what that homeland might be, the degree of independence of the Palestinian entity, its relationship with Jordan or perhaps Syria and others, the geographical boundaries of it, all have to be worked out by the parties involved.”

Finally, Carter has claimed that “any agreement has to be between the parties concerned.” He has added: “We will act as an intermediary when our good offices will serve well.”



Seen in their entirety, these statements, like Carter’s campaign statements before them, may be interpreted as broadly pro-Israel—especially when they are compared with previous statements by American leaders. Yet on closer inspection a number of doubts and questions arise, not only about the exact meaning of Carter’s statements, but also about his ability or willingness to translate them into policy.



Territories. No administration since the Six-Day War has supported major territorial gains for Israel. Even in the euphoria of June 1967, Lyndon Johnson announced that “certainly, troops must be withdrawn” in the context of a settlement. Under Richard Nixon, Secretary of State William Rogers was simply being more explicit when he said that “any changes in the preexisting lines should not reflect the weight of conquest and should be confined to insubstantial alterations required for mutual security. We do not support expansionism. We believe troops must be withdrawn as [UN Resolution 242] provides.”

Now President Carter has spoken of “minor adjustments” in the pre-June 1967 boundaries and at the same time of “defensible borders” for Israel. His use of the word “minor” is within the Rogers tradition, but his invocation of “defensible borders” and his distinction between defense lines and legal boundaries would appear to give Israel greater diplomatic flexibility. Still, it is difficult to see how “defensible” borders can involve only “minor adjustments,” unless one’s definition of “minor” is broad indeed or one understands the term “defensible” in a way that differs substantially from the Israeli understanding of it; in either case, a difficulty has been introduced and not yet resolved.



Genuine peace. Here Carter has broken new ground. Johnson spoke of “peace between the parties” and Rogers of Arab acceptance of “a permanent peace based on a binding agreement.” Rogers also hinted vaguely of “a peace agreement between the parties” that “must be based on clear and stated intentions and a willingness to bring about basic changes in the attitudes and conditions which are characteristic of the Middle East today.” Until the present administration, however, the assumption generally prevailed that the United States would accept a “negative peace” of non-belligerency, as favored by the Arabs, in which Israel’s total isolation in the Middle East would continue as before. Incredible as it may seem, Carter is the first American President to call in detail for a positive peace, involving a normalization of Israel’s position in the Middle East as part of a settlement.

This new theme has already caused serious difficulties for President Sadat of Egypt, who was on record as saying that genuine peace would have to wait until a generation after an agreement had been signed. Although it has since been reported that he indicated privately to the Carter administration that full normalization could be achieved five years after an agreement had been signed, and that some interim steps toward normal relations could take place even earlier, the two positions are practically indistinguishable. For in either case, he expects Israel to withdraw completely first, by which time there will be little incentive for the Arabs to keep their side of the bargain. This is exactly what happened in 1957; Israel withdrew from the Sinai under American pressure, whereupon the negotiations which Eisenhower had anticipated simply failed to occur. Sadat has also made it clear (in an ABC interview with Barbara Walters) that by normalization he still means only non-belligerency, which presents a basic difference from the Carter approach.

It remains to be seen whether Carter will be prepared to insist on genuine peace when he realizes that such insistence may prevent his Middle East diplomacy from succeeding.



The Palestinians. On the Palestinians, Carter has been at his most ambiguous—not that previous policy was any clearer. At the time of the second Sinai disengagement agreement, Henry Kissinger promised in a memorandum that the U.S. would not deal with the PLO unless that organization recognized Israel’s right to exist and accepted Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. However, one of Kissinger’s deputies, Harold Saunders, was soon describing the Palestinian “dimension” of the Middle East conflict as in many ways the “heart” of the matter—much to the dismay of the Israelis, who believe the heart of the matter is the Arab refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Through the last eighteen months of the Ford administration the United States maintained its opposition to the PLO, but at the same time there were suggestions of potential American moves in another direction.

The Carter administration has continued the tradition of American waffling. On the one hand, the United States has remained firm in backing Israel’s position of not negotiating with the PLO—a position strengthened by the refusal of the PLO itself to moderate its covenant calling for the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state. On the other hand, the administration does still seek a Geneva conference, and the Arabs have insisted on some form of Palestinian presence at that conference. Even when Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister of Israel, there was much room for conflict with both sides in this particular debate. Under the new Israeli government, differences over this issue are likely to increase.

Carter’s statements about a Palestinian “homeland” are dangerous even if he means a homeland within Jordan. For Jordan itself is part of Palestine—separated arbitrarily by the British from the original Mandate in 1922—and the Palestinians are a majority on the East Bank of the Jordan River just as they are on the West Bank. Does Carter then seek two Arab Palestines—analogous to the two Koreas or the two Germanies? Carter has never actually advocated the establishment of a “state,” but then again he has never as President explicitly rejected the option either. His mounting references to a Palestinian homeland are bound to raise expectations among those Arabs and their American supporters who seek an independent sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The issue has been further confused, to Israel’s detriment, by administration references to pre-1967 UN resolutions such as the original 1947 Partition Plan and the 1948 declaration granting the Palestinians the right to return to their homes or the choice of compensation for lost property. Although these references were based on a presidential misreading of the relevant resolutions and their history, they have now become part of the administration’s public record.

If the President does not favor a West Bank Palestinian state, it is unclear where he differs from the position of major voices in the Rabin government, which was that if King Hussein of Jordan wished to make a Palestinian province out of whatever portion of the West Bank that Israel returned, there would be no objections on Israel’s part. Hussein had envisioned a Palestinian province on the entire West Bank in his 1972 proposal for a “United Arab Kingdom.” The disagreement between Hussein and the Israelis revolved around the question of borders, not around whether there could be such a province. As far as many Labor leaders were concerned, Jordan was free to organize itself in any manner it liked, once permanent borders were arranged. Either Carter was uninformed of that position or he found it unsatisfactory for some reason. In either case, what he is now seeking to do is to reorganize the kingdom of Jordan, which raises several new questions: Who will determine and assign the homeland to the Palestinians? How much autonomy will they have within Jordan? What role will the PLO accept?



Procedures. Carter’s position that the parties concerned must come to an agreement among themselves stands in ultimate contradiction to his willingness to act as intermediary. While he has seemed to be against an imposed peace, he has not since the campaign endorsed direct negotiations but rather pressed for a Geneva conference attended by both the United States and the Soviet Union in addition to Arabs and Israelis. Even though the United States promised Israel at the time of Sinai II that it would make “every effort” to “insure at the conference that all the substantive negotiations will be on a bilateral basis,” such promises have a way of being forgotten or reinterpreted as circumstances necessitate. Carter’s statement to a group of three European journalists prior to his London trip in May does not augur well for his reliance on the interested parties themselves: “I would not hesitate if I saw clearly a fair and equitable solution to use the full strength of our own country and its persuasive powers to bring those nations to agreement.”

Although all the involved parties now favor a Geneva conference, it is quite clear that each has its own conception of who is to attend and what should happen there. Israel and its American supporters have favored careful preparations, stressed the dangers of failure, opposed PLO participation, preferred bilateral contacts, and sought to limit Russian involvement. The Arabs, and those whose positions fall close to theirs, have emphasized the situation’s urgency, sought an early convening of the Geneva conference with a PLO presence, and preferred a multilateral base of participation. The critical questions here are tactical: how and when to reach Geneva, and how to conduct the conference once it has been convened. The administration will be faced with a whole range of decisions relating to such procedural matters throughout its first term, and it has so far shown little sign that it knows what to do about them.



In short, there is ample evidence in the presidential statements concerning the Middle East that Carter’s commitment to Israel—as expressed in his insistence on full normalization and in his advocacy of “defensible” borders—is real and deeply held; at the same time, however, there is sufficient ambiguousness in the statements themselves to give rise to doubts about their meaning, and little thought seems to have been devoted to their possible implications. Since no one understands precisely what Carter believes, there is plenty of room for future disillusionment.

Carter’s approach may be viewed positively as an innovative attempt to undo fixed assumptions and procedures; it is more likely the result, at least in part, of inexperience. Jimmy Carter may be a quick learner, but before becoming President he had never had a political dialogue with an Arab representative; King Hussein has met many more American Presidents than Carter has, and both Hussein and Rabin had visited the White House more often than Carter before January 20, 1977. In addition, before becoming President, Carter had been to Israel only once; his Secretary of State had never been to the area; and although his National Security Adviser had traveled to the region and written on the subject, he was hardly at home in its history and complexities.

A team that has had little experience with the details of foreign policy in any area—especially one as complex and difficult as the Middle East—is likely to depend on the bureaucracy. While convincing itself of its own authority by announcing broad if ambiguous guidelines, it can then resort to the “wisdom” of those with much practical experience to work out specific tactics and policies. From Israel’s point of view this could be disastrous, for the Washington bureaucracy has classically tilted to the pro-Arab side of the spectrum (though there have been major exceptions—especially in the Pentagon). If the pattern continues, it could mean the worst of all worlds—a President who makes statements which can generally be interpreted as pro-Israel but who relies on the “experts” to execute policy.

What do these “experts” believe? On the evidence of congressional hearings and also of what has been published in the last few years in such journals as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy (from the ranks of whose editors and contributors Carter has drawn many key appointees), several assumptions about the nature of the Middle East conflict are now very widely shared. The first of these assumptions is that since the October 1973 war, the Arabs have been growing more moderate as the Israelis have become more intransigent. Moreover, it is believed, the spectacular rise of Arab economic power has made the Arabs more central to American interests, while Israel, with its economic and military needs, is more and more becoming only a burden. In addition, a deeper American involvement in the Arab countries—which, it is held, has long been prevented by our one-sided commitment to Israel—would serve as well as that commitment has done, and probably better, to keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East. Finally, time is said to be running out for Israel both because of growing Arab strength and because of dissension and squabbling within Israel itself; if Israel is to be saved, it will only be as a result of purposeful American action, taken even over the objections of Israel itself, which can no longer be expected to see where its own best interests lie. (This most recently was the burden of an important article by George Ball in Foreign Affairs, “How to Save Israel In Spite of Herself.”) Such American action, it is thought, should include pressing for the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.



In line with this set of beliefs, a policy has been emerging which, in contrast to what the President has said, has generally been unfavorable to Israel. For example:

1. The canceled sale to Israel of concussion bombs. There was much talk at the time about the evil nature of this weapon—the President even announced a study leading to the possible elimination of concussion bombs altogether from the American arsenal—and Israel’s supporters were reminded that in any event the balance of the deal made by President Ford shortly before the 1976 election would be honored. Actually, however, another major part of the deal was the sale of FLIR night-vision equipment, and although the spirit of Ford’s public promise was that Israel would receive the latest available technology, after long delays all that has been approved is the oldest version of this equipment, originally developed in the 1950’s. As for Carter’s study, one suspects that the bureaucracy will gradually bury it; concussion bombs still remain in the American arsenal.

If the administration is as concerned about arms control in the Middle East as it professes to be, one wonders why it did not abrogate the sale of sophisticated and easily transferable Maverick air-to-ground missiles to Saudi Arabia—a deal also made by Ford in the fall of 1976, despite considerable congressional opposition. The Mavericks provide the Arabs with a new technology they previously lacked, and dramatically increase the accuracy of their bombing capacity—thereby escalating the arms race. Carter himself had declared on September 30, 1976, during the campaign, that “There is no reason to think these [Maverick] missiles will increase security and stability in the Middle East. . . . No administration which was sensitive to the climate in the Middle East would let the sale go forward.” Obviously, what happened was that the bureaucracy played on Carter’s apprehensions over concussion bombs and simply overlooked the Mavericks sold to Saudi Arabia (as well as the American-made Hawk missiles sold to Jordan which threaten the Jordan-Israel balance in a possible future war).

Whatever the intrinsic arguments for or against concussion bombs, the cancellation of the deal was a signal to Israel that arrangements made by the United States are not necessarily firm and reliable (a lesson the Israelis will remember when Carter tries to trade Israeli withdrawals for American guarantees) and put the Arabs on notice that they could expect growing distance between Jerusalem and Washington.

2. Despite promises made by Kissinger, Carter vetoed the sale of $150-million worth of Israeli-built Kfir jets to Ecuador. For the Israelis, the deal was actually worth much more because of likely future sales in South America and elsewhere. The administration was quick to weigh in with pious sermons about the potential danger the sale would hold for the South American balance of power (even though Ecuador had already bought highly sophisticated British Jaguars equipped with U.S. technology), and it was also pointed out righteously that American companies had not been allowed to sell similar equipment in Latin America. While Carter fussed and the Israelis fumed, the Ecuadorians began negotiations with the French and Russians.

The Israelis were supposedly compensated for the loss of this deal with an increase in economic aid from $1.5 billion (in the Ford budget) to $1.785 billion. That sounded generous, but the Israelis had actually requested $2.3 billion and even the State Department had recommended $1.8 billion; it was the Ford budget officers who had reduced the sum to $1.5 billion in the first place. Since it was known that Israel’s supporters in Congress were prepared to do battle over the original Ford figures, it seems likely that Carter would have raised the sum to at least the original State Department figure even without the flap over the Kfirs.

3. The administration has turned out to be more responsive to anti-Israel business interests in the Middle East than had originally been thought. Thus, the State Department found it necessary to complain about Israeli drilling in the Gulf of Suez at about the same time as the Kfir and concussion-bomb deals were being abrogated and Cyrus Vance was preparing to depart on his fact-finding mission. The Israeli activity is controversial under international law, but what purpose—other than the development of an “even-handed” reputation and the pursuit of Amoco’s interests—were served by this public fretting? The solidification of Israel-U.S. relations during a period of delicate diplomatic and political transition, something presumably to be desired, was certainly not among the purposes so advanced.

4. Sensitivity to business concerns has been even clearer on the issue of the Arab boycott. In his second televised debate with President Ford during the campaign, Jimmy Carter said unequivocally, “I’ll do everything I can as President to stop the boycott of American businesses by the Arab countries. It is not a matter of diplomacy with me; it is a matter of morality.” Yet when the anti-boycott legislation, which the Ford administration had opposed, started to move through Congress, the administration sent Cyrus Vance to testify, thus immediately locating the issue within the context of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, exactly as the Ford team had done, instead of within the context of American commercial practice.

In the ensuing weeks, officials of the Carter administration zigged and zagged; while avowing adherence to their proclaimed principles, they generally took positions in detail which undermined the principles they were pledged to protect. In the end, the administration bought the compromise struck between three major American Jewish organizations and the Business Roundtable—a compromise which not only took Carter off the political hook but was weaker than legislation which had been foreseen in January 1977. Why the compromise? Basically, the leaders of the three organizations decided they could not squander whatever political capital they had with the administration and the business community over this particular issue. But the legislation contains a built-in loophole; with the Commerce Department empowered to define exceptions and rules, further controversy is assured.

5. Carter’s fear of nuclear proliferation is widely known and justifiably respected in the United States; Israel’s probable “bomb in the basement” is widely suspected but less well regarded, even among that country’s most ardent supporters. A clash between the two nations over non-proliferation could have been anticipated as soon as Carter was elected. General administration policies on the sale of nuclear fuels abroad are already interfering with Israel-American negotiations over the nuclear reactor offered by President Nixon in 1974 to both Cairo and Jerusalem. For two years, the United States and Israel negotiated the details of the proposed sale; the agreement was set to be sent to Congress for final approval, but the Carter administration has now canceled the deal because it means to establish a new American policy on nuclear-reactor sales. The administration has also indicated that it is unwilling to renew the long-standing agreement to supply fuels to Israel’s research reactor near Tel Aviv, as part of its international restrictions on the sale of fuels abroad.

These delicate matters represent another blow to U.S. credibility in Israeli eyes, even if they are intertwined with the problems over proliferation the administration is having with other allies as well. If Carter’s program should prove successful and proliferation in the Middle East is impeded, Israel might actually gain. It seems more likely, however, that the administration will succeed in cutting down on arrangements with Israel but will not succeed in preventing reactor sales to the Arabs by Europeans. As an example, France’s recent deal with Pakistan (which may now be permanently delayed) was fraught with danger for Israel because of the close cooperation between Pakistan and the Arab countries. In the end, Israel will probably lose an important future source of energy as well as a symbolic tie to the U.S.; since it will also maintain its nuclear option, one can imagine even further tension between Washington and Jerusalem on this whole issue.

6. The administration’s original version of a presidential review memorandum on arms-sales policy (PRM 12) provided for strict controls on arms sales, co-production agreements, and transfer of high technology, with exceptions for the NATO and ANZUS Pact countries and Japan. If left intact, this memorandum would have been devastating both for the Israeli defense effort and for the Israeli economy. It contradicted agreements made between Kissinger and the government of Israel at the time of the second Sinai disengagement agreement, and it also contradicted Carter’s statements during the campaign that assistance to Israel had to be unquestioned if negotiations were to be conducted successfully. Now, Carter officials were using arguments identical to those employed by Ford—namely, that a lid had to be put on aid to Israel while delicate negotiations with the Arabs were in progress. In the end, Carter and Mondale did, under strong congressional pressure, reinstate Israel as a favored arms recipient, but a disturbing amount of symbolic damage had already been done.



The victory of the Likud coalition in Israel’s elections, however, suggests in its own way that the damage is more than merely symbolic. Likud received as many votes as it did for a variety of reasons: corruption and scandal in the Labor party; the resignation of Rabin; runaway inflation; frequent labor strikes; a generalized desire for change. It is also true that Yigael Yadin’s reform party took votes away from Labor. But Jimmy Carter did not help. Uncertain arms flows, mixed signals from the Washington bureaucracy, talk of a Palestinian homeland during a cordial soirée with Hafez Assad the week before the election, public reminders to Yigal Allon that the United States would be offering “suggestions” to Israel concerning a peace settlement—all this was sheer folly if the hope was that a Labor government would be returned to office with a united coalition and a mandate for negotiations. Instead, the administration in effect issued a challenge to the Israeli electorate which that electorate accepted, presenting the Americans with a much more united Israeli government than had been expected—but not exactly in the direction that had been hoped.

It remains to be seen whether the United States under Jimmy Carter will end up ameliorating or exacerbating the situation in the Middle East, and whether President Carter himself will become a force for settlement or a force for war. On the basis of his administration’s performance so far, there are grounds for fear and not too many grounds for hope. One cannot be totally reassured by a President who calls Hafez Assad “a strong supporter in the search for peace” and who claims that he himself has “no disturbing differences at all” with Saudi Arabia. Already since the elections in Israel, Carter has on several occasions made it absolutely clear that the United States intends to stand firm on its insistence that Israel must give up most, if not all, of the West Bank, and that he is prepared to bring tremendous pressure to bear on the new government to compromise on this point. By contrast, he has given little indication that he still stands equally firm on his earlier view that a settlement must as a first principle include “tangible and concrete actions” by the Arabs, including recognition and diplomatic and commercial relations, toward a full and genuine peace with Israel. Simply put, the Arabs must dramatically alter their past position on this issue, or Carter must back down from his own stated views, or Carter must be prepared to fail. One may be permitted the skeptical conclusion that the second is the likeliest of the three possibilities, in which case there will be no chance of achieving the only kind of settlement that could ever be expected to work.

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