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Procrustes in the Middle East

American foreign policy makers have long had a weakness for reenacting the old Greek story of Procrustes' bed: that is, for trying to squeeze stubborn foreign realities into the quite different dimensions of domestic political requirements. A recurring example of this weakness is United States Middle East policy.

Rightly or wrongly, the Carter administration considers the Camp David agreements its outstanding achievement in foreign affairs, at least as the one which, unlike the Panama and SALT treaties, is most widely perceived by the American people as an achievement. The administration is therefore exerting itself mightily to make certain that these agreements do not fall apart or stall during the election year, thus deflating this rosy-tinted balloon.

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The first Camp David agreement, the one concerning peace and normalization of relations between Israel and Egypt, has up to this point been faithfully carried out as provided in its text, and both parties seem determined to proceed with its implementation. This is indisputably a great achievement, though it may owe more to President Sadat's courageous initiative in going to Jerusalem than to the follow-up at Camp David.

The present problem arises from the second part of the Camp David agreements, which relates to autonomy for the Palestinians inhabiting the West Bank and Gaza. This agreement, which from the outset was received skeptically by those most concerned, was primarily designed in the Camp David context to protect President Sadat politically, both at home and in the rest of the Arab world, from the charge of making a separate peace without regard for the interests of other Arabs, particularly the Palestinians.

So interested were all three participants at Camp David in accomplishing this purpose, each for his own reasons, that they signed an agreement which papered over radically differing interpretations of what was intended.

Mr. Begin and, in varying degrees, members of his government intended that, whatever form Palestinian "autonomy" might take, it would be compatible, at least, with indefinitely prolonged Israeli control of security on the West Bank or, in accordance with the strong religious convictions of Mr. Begin and some members of his government, with ultimate incorporation of the area into Israel itself.

President Sadat, on the other hand, was and will continue to be obliged to insist, for the domestic and inter-Arab political reasons mentioned above, that Palestinian autonomy be real and that, whatever the timetable may be, it lead eventually to the same self-determination for the Palestinians which almost all other "colonized" peoples around the world have now achieved.

These radically differing interpretations of this Camp David agreement have quite predictably led to a deadlock in negotiations which almost certainly cannot be resolved in the present context. Current disorders on the West Bank reflect, on the one hand, Palestinians' despair that Israeli occupation is tightening rather than loosening and, on the other, Israelis' fear that their security is now being threatened from within as well as without. These disorders obviously make any meaningful agreement on Palestinian autonomy even more difficult to achieve.

It is under these circumstances that the Carter administration is endeavoring to squeeze these intractable realities into the Procrustean bed of its passionate desire to preserve until Nov. 4 at least the appearance of progress under Camp David, at no matter what cost to more significant, longer-range aspects of our Middle East relations.

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One of the most promising of these aspects is of course our relations with Egypt and with President Sadat. Yet Sadat is being strongly urged by President Carter himself to continue beyond the May 26 deadline these implausible negotiations on Palestinian "autonomy."

Their continuance under these circumstances does, however, place an additional political burden on President Sadat which we, as his friends, should not be asking him to bear. His own acute awareness of these hazards is reflected in his on-again off-again attitude to resumption of the negotiations.

In a Middle Eastern environment of escalating Islamic zeal, in an Egyptian environment of enormous demographic, economic, and social pressures, Sadat has quite enough problems on his hands without our adding to them. Strengthening Sadat in every possible way, not to mention King Hussein of Jordan (whom we have so inexcusabley neglected), should have for us a far higher priority than artificially keeping the Camp David autonomy process alive.

Another damaging aspect of this Procrustean policy is that it impels us to foreclose, at least for the next six months, all other options for dealing with Arab-Israeli problems. It obliges us, for example, to twist the arms of our European allies to deter them from pursuing more promising negotiating tracks, which they have shown an increasing disposition to undertake and which they could undertake without the domestic constraints that limit our freedom of action.

We entered upon the Camp David enterprise because we argued that other courses -- for example, the pursuit of a comprehensive settlement -- had proved illusory and that a step-by-step approach would be more fruitful. It did indeed produce one most fruitful step, the Israel-Egypt settlement. This approach, however, has now become an obstacle to moving on to more promising options, as well as a dangerous burden to our best friends in the region.

This episode is one more tragic example of the impediments which our quadrennial year- long electoral campaign places in the way of the realistic and flexible conduct of foreign policy.

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