A new and different round in the old struggle over possession of the lands of Palestine has now opened. Arabs and Israelis have each made their opening moves. Both sides are maneuvering to put the kind of pressure on President Reagan which can, and well may, decide whether Israel is to get all of Palestine lying west of the Jordan River, or be required to disgorge that part of it which is still inhabited predominantly by Arabs.
The obvious, although never officially declared, Israeli purpose is to settle so many Jews in West Bank Arab lands that the world will ultimately accept Israeli sovereignty as an accomplished fact. To that end the Israeli government is now processing plans and arrangements for the extra 10 settlements which Prime Minister Begin announced last year and which are supposed to complete the settlement project. The immediate effort is to get these 10 going before the next Israeli election which is expected to end the Begin ministry.
The Arabs are trying to counter this Israeli project by improving their organizations, improving their relations with Washington's allies, and preparing to use the oil weapon once more as a means of inducing the United States to see the Middle East from an Arab rather than an Israeli point of view.
In one respect they are already successful. Recognition of the PLO by the West European allies exists de facto and almost certainly will become official before this year is out. The allies will be using their influence in Washington to try to move the US in the same direction. Whenever President Reagan wants something from those important allies in western Europe -- he will find himself reminded of their interest in helping the Arabs gain independence in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Islamic summit in Taif, Saudi Arabia, did not produce total unity, but the important Islamic countries got a lot of talking done. One result was increased acceptance of the PLO as the representative of the Arabs in the occupied territories and increased pledges of support for PLO leader Yassir Arafat. Another important event in Taif was an indication that the Saudi governmnt intendeds to play a more active role in support of the Palestine Arabs and of their yearing for an independent homeland in Palestine.
At present 72 jewish settlements are operating, under construction, or planned in West Bank territory. Figures differ as to the number of settlers. The latest I have seen report 54,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem suburbs set up since the 1967 war. Some 14,000 live in settlements outside the Jerusalem area.
The Arab population of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza strip totals about 1,250,000. There are close to another half million Arabs in Israel itself. UN Resolution 242, adopted unanimously after the 1967 war, called for withdrawal of Israel from occupied territories in return for an Arab recognition of Israel. Implementation of Resolution 242 is still the official policy of the UN and of the United States. It was reaffirmed as the goal at Camp David.
During the recent US political campaign Republican candidate Ronald Reagan used all the code words and phrases which mean total support for Israel and its purposes. Since Mr. Reagan became President he has labeled the PLO as "terrorist" and insisted that the US will not recognize it unless or until it accepts the existence of Israel. But Secretary of State Alexander Haig at his first news conference was more diplomatic and seemed to support Resolution 242. He added, "We support the Camp David accords and the peace process that was launched under those accords." The Camp David accords called for Arab self-rule or autonomy.
An immediate test of Reagan administration policy lies just ahead. The Saudis are buying 60 F-15 fighters from the US. They have asked for "advanced accessories" which give those planes the capability of bombing Israel. Israel has protested the sale of such "accessories" to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are firm in wanting them.
Mr. Reagan's decision on this point will be watched with special interest by all concerned. Failure to give the Saudis what they are asking could mean less Saudi oil flowing westward. The West European allies and Japan are bound to support the Saudis on this issue. In other words, Mr. Reagan is about to get his first experience of what it will be like to come between the Arabs and the Israelis. Before he is finished with the "Reagan round" in the Middle East he may nourish nostalgic t houghts of California.