The fate of Palestine seems strangely linked to years ending in seven. Theodore Herzl’s new Zionist movement held its first congress in Basel in 1897. In November 1917, the Balfour Declaration tried to define the Palestinians into oblivion as the country’s “non-Jewish inhabitants.” In July 1937, the Peel Commission recommended, for the first time officially, partition of Palestine. In November 1947, the United Nations proclaimed partition as an international consensus. 1957 seemed to mark a reversal of Arab defeat, as this consensus compelled Israel, France and Britain to withdraw from Egypt and Sinai following the Suez aggression of late 1956. But the June war of 1967 confirmed that the rhetorical militancy of Arab nationalism was no match for the purposeful deployment of Israeli military power. Israel claimed the political fruit of this victory ten years later, in 1977, when Anwar al-Sadat traveled to Jerusalem and opted for a separate peace.
These years of sevens include other anniversaries. 1947 was a watershed year in the evolution of the “invisible government” in Washington. The National Security Act of that year established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. (It also authorized the era of Newspeak by rechristening the Department of War as the Department of Defense.) The Truman Doctrine in March 1947 signaled US readiness to intervene militarily in the Middle East (“an area of great natural resources which must be accessible to all nations”). January 1957’s Eisenhower Doctrine reasserted the intervention option in terms of the “power vacuum” in the region and the threat of “international communism.”
In many ways 1967’s significance derives from its restatement of the balance of forces in the region, political and military, regional and international. It accelerated a coupling of American and Israeli strategic interests in the Middle East, a relationship formally consecrated with the November 1983 joint strategic accord. 1967, in other words, wedded the military and “national security” establishments of the leading superpower and the leading regional power in ways that have withstood opposing forces within and outside of those establishments. The local theme of this union is to efface and extinguish Palestinian claims and rights; the global theme is to eliminate any manner of Soviet influence along its southern border.
It is still too early to ascribe any significance to 1987, but neither can we discount it. First, the PLO has formally reunited around a program supporting an international, UN-based peace conference and a confederal relationship between Jordan and an independent Palestinian state. Second, Israel is just as formally divided over the merits of a restricted conference that would keep out the PLO and provide a fig leaf for separate negotiations with Jordan. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is energetically promoting such a venture, while his nominal boss, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, declares that such a forum will be “disastrous” for Israel.
The diametrically opposed conceptions of these conferences may be enough to ensure complete diplomatic paralysis, but for a third factor. The Soviet Union has launched a series of diplomatic offensives along several fronts. It played a major role in facilitating the unification of the PLO. It appears that Moscow used the visit of Hafiz al-Asad to press Syria not to obstruct PLO unity and, on another front, to meet with Iraqi leaders concerning the Gulf war. In late April, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky toured the region, including Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, to promote talks toward a Gulf ceasefire. The Soviets have agreed to postpone payments on Egypt’s $3 billion military debt, in pointed contrast to Washington’s behavior over the $4.6 billion owed to the US. The Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia seem to be moving along parallel if not coordinated tracks to facilitate an Arab summit meeting that could address both the war in the Gulf and Palestine conflict. Soviet overtures to Israel over many months — releasing prominent Soviet Jewish opponents of Moscow, allowing emigration to Israel and signalling readiness to resume diplomatic relations — seem to be part of an effort to put some distance between Washington and Tel Aviv, those closest of collaborators.
The American political establishment, in disarray over the Iran-contra scandal, has reacted with undisguised panic. When Kuwait proposed to register some of its oil tankers with the Soviet Union and others with the United States in order to deter Iranian attacks, Washington pushed Kuwait to sail under American naval escort and assigned a full-time carrier task force to the region. The editorialists of the New York Times displayed an equally hostile appreciation of Soviet diplomacy. We can discern the outlines of the Reagan administration’s counterattack in the Times’ rhetoric: the Soviet leadership “has reestablished its hold over” the PLO, elsewhere described as Moscow’s “only true allies in the region.” Interestingly, accounts of Soviet diplomacy have been absent from the Times’ news columns. The front-page Middle East story on the day of the editorial, May 3, was about an Israeli disc jockey. The reading public is apparently not to be trusted with information with which it might form its own opinions. It seems clear, if we can interpret the behavior of the administration and the media chieftains, that a main obstacle to political negotiations in the Middle East lies in the United States.