Israel girds for fight to annex the West Bank
The battle lines are being drawn for the great fight next year over whether Israel will succeed in Prime Minister Menachem Begin's long-term aim to annex the West Bank of the Jordan - or Judea and Samaria, as he prefers to call it.
This is the context within which should be seen:
* Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's statement to the newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth that his country's effective annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights had been initiated because ''the US has resolved to try to return Israel to (its) 1967 borders after April 1982.'' This would mean Israel's giving up the West Bank.
* The postponement of the visit to Washington of Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia, which had been scheduled for Jan. 19.
* The visit last week to Saudi Arabia of Syrian President Assad, for talks with King Khalid and Crown Prince Fahd. From Saudi Arabia, Mr. Assad went on to other Arab states of the Gulf.
* The visit this past weekend to Iraq of Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif.
On the Israeli side, if the path to eventual annexation of the West Bank is to be kept open, there are at least two immediate requirements.
The first is that any alternative to the Camp David forum and formula for dealing with the Palestinian issue (which means the future of the West Bank) be rejected - or at least be kept at arm's length as long as possible. That formula has enabled Israel hitherto to proceed with what its critics see as creeping annexation of the West Bank.
The second requirement is to head off or thwart any inclination on the part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) - or of the latter's two most important sponsors, Saudi Arabia and Syria - toward acceptance of, and negotiation with, Israel. The Israelis know that the US would almost certainly back any such negotiation. That, in turn, would throw a wrench into Israeli hopes of annexing the West Bank.
This explains why Israel reacted with such vigorous hostility to Saudi Crown Prince Fahd's peace plan, temporarily derailed at least at the Arab summit at Fez, Morocco, last month. And why (as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggested Dec. 17) Prime Minister Begin acted on Golan now to stifle any second thoughts Syrian President Assad might have about negotiation - even though Mr. Assad helped sidetrack the Saudi plan at Fez.
On the Arab side, if Israeli annexation of the West Bank is to be blocked, there are also at least two immediate requirements.
The first of these is the adoption by the governments most directly concerned and the PLO of an agreed negotiating position in any new move for an overall Arab-Israel settlement. Failure to achieve this has led to the Israelis repeatedly outmaneuvering them. .
Just how clearly this is now perceived by Arab governments and the PLO is not known. But since both Syria and Iraq offended Saudi Arabia by their hostility to the Saudi peace plan only a month ago, it could be significant that the Saudis have since received Syrian President Assad in Riyadh and have now sent their interior minister to Baghdad for talks wih the Iraqis. (Admittedly, the public purpose of the latter visit was not to discuss the Arab-Israel conflict.)
The second requirement on the Arab side is the support of the US for any Arab peace initiative - support that will extend to sanctions against, or pressure on , Israel at the right time.
Paradoxically, however, if Saudi Arabia is to be the main initiator of any new peace move intended to gain broader Arab support than did Crown Prince Fahd's plan at Fez, that move should not appear to have been worked out in concert with the US. This is probably one of the reasons contributing to Prince Fahd's postponement of his January visit to Washington.
Another likely reason for delaying the visit is that the Saudis want to wait and see how the US acts in the UN Security Council debate due Jan. 5. That debate is intended to consider ''appropriate measures'' if Israel has not complied with the Council's call to rescind the legislation virtually annexing the Golan Heights. Israel has already said it will not.
Israel's outwardly confident defiance of the UN and, more important, of the US (which joined in the Security Council call) is based on an awareness of two factors working to its advantage.
The first of these is its own holding of the US and Egypt hostage over the evacuation of the last swath of Israeli-occupied Egyptian Sinai, due in April - the date mentioned by Israeli Defense Minister Sharon in his Yedioth Aharonoth interview. The Israeli government knows the priority the US gives to securing this withdrawal on schedule. This, in turn, is likely to inhibit the US from giving the Israelis any pretext for reneging on it.
After April, however, the situation may be different. Mr. Sharon described his government's move on Golan as ''curbing action'' and said, without elaborating, that further moves might become necessary. Some Arabs are bound to ask whether these possible moves are going to be on the West Bank - and whether they will be rushed through before April.
The second factor working in Israel's favor is the weakness of the leverage in Arab hands. Arab resort to force is hardly a valid threat with Egypt sitting on the sidelines because of its peace treaty with Israel. That leaves to the Arabs only US pressure in their behalf (always difficult to secure) and the threat by the Saudis to use the oil weapon (which the Saudis are reluctant to unsheathe).