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Middle East: Inching Toward the Table

5 minute read

The initial cease-fire between Israel and Egypt had hardly taken effect last August before both sides were using the lull to prepare for war. Israel’s Bar-Lev Line, along the Suez Canal’s east bank, was extended and impressively hardened. Across the canal, the late Gamal Abdel Nasser rushed so many Soviet-built missiles forward that, as a Western diplomat in Cairo cracked last week, “even if the Russians wanted to move more in, they probably couldn’t find a place to put them.”

The buildup, and its potential for precipitating an all-out war, apparently frightened both sides. Since last month, when the original cease-fire was extended until Feb. 5, the principals have been moving gingerly back toward negotiations. Israel had been hoping to force Egypt to dismantle at least some of its missiles before talks began on a peace settlement. Last week the Israelis indicated that they have abandoned that hope and are ready to return to the talks with Egypt and Jordan as early as the end of this month. Even so, the Israelis profess pessimism about the outcome. “Israel wants total peace without total withdrawal,” said Foreign Minister Abba Eban, “while Egypt wants total withdrawal without total peace.”

Eban was referring to a statement by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat demanding “a timetable for withdrawal.” But diplomats in Cairo considered Sadat’s statement, made during a visit to troops along the canal, to be more a matter of morale building than a real condition for the talks. More and more, Sadat’s policy is emerging as an extension of Nasser’s. In Cairo’s daily Al Ahram last week, Editor Hassanein Heikal, a Nasser confidant, wrote that Egypt’s former President had become convinced before his death that a military solution of the Middle East situation could not succeed. According to Heikal, Nasser believed that Egypt could win back Sinai from Israel. But he considered his Arab allies too weak to win a broader struggle, and he was afraid of U.S. interference on behalf of Israel.

Familiar Figure. When the Israelis publicly indicate a willingness to sit down at the negotiating table. United Nations Secretary-General U Thant will summon Mediator Gunnar Jarring from his regular post as Swedish Ambassador to Moscow. Since the Arabs refuse to meet directly with Israel, Jarring is likely to shuttle between delegations. The site of the talks has not been settled. The Israelis would prefer Rome or Cyprus in order to be closer to Jerusalem for instructions. But Jarring will probably decide on New York. That could be an advantage: the farther from home all parties are, the slower the progress will be. The slower the debate, the more likely the chance is that Jarring will be able to strike some agreement.

With the negotiations a virtual certainty, both sides dispatched high-powered emissaries to Washington this week to discuss the situation. Jordan’s King Hussein, who stopped in Cairo to visit Sadat, is expected to warn President Nixon of a possible outbreak of fighting unless earnest discussions are under way before the current cease-fire expires. At the same time, Hussein, who still depends on the West for arms, will seek more aid to replace some of the $24 million annual subsidy that Libya’s revolutionary government canceled after the September fighting between Hussein’s troops and Arab guerrillas.

Hussein will hardly have left the U.S. capital when another familiar figure is scheduled to arrive. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan is visiting the U.S. ostensibly to raise money for the United Jewish Appeal, but that is a convenient cover for an unofficial side trip to Washington. Before Dayan’s departure, Premier Golda Meir dispatched a personal letter to President Nixon seeking clarification of U.S. guarantees on arms deliveries and economic assistance—and a promise that the U.S. will not “impose” its point of view on Israel when the peace talks get under way. The U.S. last week, in an unusually speedy reply, promised to keep Israel’s heavy defense expenditures in mind and not to let the Middle East balance of power shift to Israel’s disadvantage. But Washington refused to modify its position that Israel must withdraw to its pre-1967 borders with only insubstantial changes.

New Image. In Washington, Dayan will re-emphasize the points made in Mrs. Meir’s letter, but he will also stress his own controversial disengagement plan. Dayan has called for Israel to withdraw its armor and artillery and Egypt its missiles and guns to 18 miles from the banks of the Suez Canal. Egypt would then be free to reopen the canal for shipping and return half a million refugees who fled from their imperiled homes along the canal during the bitter fighting before the ceasefire. For Egypt, the idea would mean canal revenues and restored prestige. For Israel, it could lead to a peace settlement and a new image among critics who complain that the Israelis are more interested in keeping the territories they won in 1967 than in settling the volatile situation in the Middle East. One drawback to the Dayan plan: it would enable Russian naval units to move freely through the Suez Canal to and from positions in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Australia and Japan have already indicated to the Israelis their concern over the implications of such a move.

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