An election campaign season is not the easiest time for President Carter to be dealing with the Arab-Israeli dispute. He obviously would prefer to do nothing which might alienate Jewish voters. Hence it took some political courage for the administration to join with others in the UN Security Council in rebuking Israel for its policy of colonizing occupied Arab lands and calling on it to dismantle its settlements. Last year the United States abstained on a similar resolution. So the vote represents a hardening of policy and a demonstrative show of sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs. We applaud the move.
This is not the first time the international community -- of the US -- has voiced disapproval of Israeli policy. The Security Council resolution, adopted unanimously, merely reaffirms a long-held position: the settlements are "illegal under international law" and "an obstacle" to negotiations for a comprehensive peace settlement. This is indisputable. Even many Israelis as well as American Jews are concerned that an annexationist policy only endangers Israel's own security in the long run. They favor more understanding for Palestinian claims to a homeland.
The Palestinian issue is indeed what is now forcing the Carter administration to take a firm stand, despite domestic political risk. The President is under increased pressure at home and abroad to show progress on this question in order to assure a steady supply of Middle East oil and to hold down prices. The Saudis are not publicly linking the Palestinian question and oil production, but there has been no dearth of reports indicating a mood of disaffection with the US. They are disappointed in the slow pace of the autonomy talks and the failure of the US to obtain concessions from Israel. In Saudi eyes, the lack of progress on the Mideast dispute is in fact opening the way for more Soviet intervention in the region.
Significantly, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has not sent the Muslim countries of the region surging to America's side. They welcome Mr. Carter's new stand of toughness toward the Russians. But they do not want a permanent US military presence in the Gulf area, believing that the West's persistence in seeking military solutions alone misreads the situation.
It is against this background that Energy Secretary Charles Duncan is in the Middle East trying to batten down future oil supplies. The majority of the OPEC members want to conserve oil and, to maintain income, this would mean increasing prices again -- not a happy prospect for the US economy, already groaning under spiraling inflation. Whether Mr. Duncan will succeed in persuading the Saudis not to cut back production remains to be seen. Presumably the US vote at the United Nations was designed to show the administration's good faith on the Palestinian question as the oil talks began.
That diplomatic move alone, however welcome, will have to be followed by others of sterner stuff. The Palestinian problem, in short, is not only the key to good relations with the Arab states and future oil supplies. It has become a major, if not the major, factor in US efforts to counter Soviet expansionism in Southwest Asia. That gives Mr. Carter a lot to think about, election or no.