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West Bank drift

KING Hussein of Jordan, in disparaging Reagan administration efforts to negotiate a West Bank settlement along a Jordanian-moderate Palestinian front, was only echoing the dour expectations that can be heard elsewhere in the Arab world, in Israel, as well as within the United States.

A common Arab League view of the Reagan effort is that Washington partly sought some Middle East card on the rebound from its reverses in Lebanon. Many Israelis have felt for some time that Hussein does not really want to consummate an agreement with Israel, that he fears the internal pressures that might develop from an expanded trans-Jordan River population. Hussein is partly covering his flank with the Arab world, especially Syria, by renouncing the now abrogated Lebanon-Israel pact, an agreement he had earlier initialed.

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Hussein's unusually pointed remarks in a New York Times interview, however, may have given the administration a useful excuse to back away from any new initiatives in the region as the US election campaign heats up. ''Israel is on our land,'' he said. ''It is there by virtue of American military assistance and economic aid that translates into aid for Israeli settlements.'' President Reagan's remarks the day before, to a pro-Israeli audience, criticizing Israeli settlements on the West Bank and rejecting a shift of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, had evidently not been enough for Hussein, who wants Washington to compel Israel to freeze West Bank settlements.

What the West Bank issue lacks now is some stirring, short of war, to pursue a settlement.

The Arab world is somewhat encouraged that efforts to mediate in the Iran-Iraq war, to move ahead on a Lebanon settlement, are under way. But Yasser Arafat's goal of reestablishing himself as leader of a moderate Palestinian force for negotiating is a long way off.

Israel at the moment shows its own troubled ambivalence toward its West Bank policies. What it sees as the military imperatives of controlling West Bank territory runs against a repugnance many Israelis feel toward managing an apartheid social and political structure there. The Israelis appear to long for a period of consolidation of the territory they now hold. The Camp David agreement with Egypt has not produced the psychological dividends that were hoped for it. Mentally, Israelis have begun to adjust to the shape of an Israel that runs from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. The Peace Now movement, which opposes this viewpoint, seems to be a mixture of internal political tensions, free speech affirmations, and discontent over the economic costs of the Lebanon occupation, as well as an endorsement of a ''peace for land'' pact on the West Bank.

In short, Israel itself does not appear ready, out of internal forces, to act on the West Bank.

Washington, we repeat, may have found in Hussein's discouraging remarks just the excuse it needs to let things slide further in the region. Frankly, we see little sign that Washington is ready to break out of its own ambivalence, quite apart from the current US election.

Hussein claims that if there is a US-Israeli front in negotiations, that the US can hardly object to a Soviet role. This, more than alleging the US is ''succumbing to Israeli dictates,'' could conceivably stir this White House.

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''Oil, Soviet ambitions in the Middle East, the interests of the United States, Britain, and France are far more responsible for maintaining the tension than the largely bogus pretext of Arab nationalism,'' Ben-Gurion wrote in his memoirs. ''If the great powers genuinely wanted peace, there would be no Arab-Israel conflict.''

King Hussein and others may disagree over the characterization of Arab nationalism, but not about the level of commitment needed now for Middle East peace.

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