Background of the Sisco Visit

As the first year of the standstill, cease-fire along the Suez Canal nears its close, the chief official American expert on the Middle East will revisit Israel this week in what a State Department authority has probably rightly described as “just one more in the process of diplomacy” for reopening the waterway. Assistant Secretary of State Joseph J. Sisco’s trip follows hard on Egyptian specialist Michael Sterner’s visit to Cairo. From these travels, it can be assumed that some openings are present–however slight–for bargaining and extending Secretary of State Rogers’ initiative during May for agreement on the canal issue. In any case, Egypt has indicated it sanctions the American activity. Israel, too, seems to appreciate the visit since it might result in a better flow of weapons to counter Soviet hardware along the Nile as well as allow for discussion of new ideas. Sisco’s visit, however, comes at a time when the Arab world has disintegrated anew by plot, counterplot, and maneuver from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. Within a fortnight. Morocco’s King Hassan fought off Libyan-supported rebels; Jordan’s King Hussein demolished the Palestine commandoes in a way that caused Syria and Iraq to close their frontiers with Jordan; in the Sudan, Iraq-backed military leaders first drove out their old colleague Gen. Numeiri from leadership, but in a surprising turnabout he regained power. In the aftermath of Arab Killing Arab, Egyptian President Sadat warned Israel again that this is the year of decision and his editorial mouthpiece, El Ahram charged Bulgarians in Khartoum with aiding the rebellion against Sadat’s ally Numeiri.

Sadat may indeed indulge in some acts of war against Israel in the new year. But some concession with Russo-American backing may be arranged to avert this risk. In the latter connection, what Sisco may seek from Israel and Sterner had possibly obtained from Egypt are commitments of “inaction” by both. Thus Israel may agree that Egyptian forces may cross the Suez into Sinai but Cairo would pledge in secret that after a parade or two to demonstrate its triumph and authority, the forces would return to their previous positions except for a token presence. Similarly, Egypt would agree to Israeli shipping through the reopened Suez but after establishing the principle by a sailing or two, Israel would cease the movement to allow time for the understanding to penetrate the Arab consciousness. In this agreement, to be outwardly positive in word but basically negative in deed, Israel and Egypt also could arrive at an understanding on the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the Suez and the indefinite continuation of the cease-fire pending the results of the first two preliminaries.

The timing and assurances in this game, if it is indeed on the chessboard, will require much exploration. The ultimate result cannot be foreseen. What is encouraging is Sadat’s slap at his critics in Egypt that they act like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand because they dislike his talking with American officials. With an important Soviet delegation present for his speech. Sadat praised the Soviet for its continuing military and economic aid. The next day, Cairo’s semi-official newspaper, Al Ahram, which usually sounds Sadat’s views, charged that the Bulgarian Embassy in Khartoum aided the loss of Sadat’s friend Numeiri and that night in Khartoum a Numeiri aid pledged the destruction of the Communist party in the Sudan. These two developments combine to indicate that the wily Sadat is serving notice on the Soviets that he and his friends accept their help against Israel but not their politics, despite a solemnly signed 15-year pact. On their part, the Soviets possibly may have used the Bulgarians in Khartoum as a notice to Sadat, who has imprisoned the Soviet’s best friends in Egypt, that he may also be a target, to be replaced by more reliable pro-Soviet elements.

Meanwhile, the players in Moscow have altered their course somewhat. The Kremlin muttered about American interference with the Jarring mission for seeking to reopen the Suez Canal. Now the Soviets are said to smile benignly on the activity. Why the change of heart? One reason may be the Soviet desire to strengthen their presence without much further delay at both ends of Suez. More important, perhaps, the Soviet Navy wishes to enter the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean at the earliest opportunity. The United States, from the testimony presented by three former Assistant Secretaries of State to a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee last week, along with their experts, is inclined at present not to challenge the entry of Soviet power in the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal. Perhaps this is intended to placate the Kremlin in the wake of the U.S.-China rapprochement. It also may be a way of putting the Soviets and China into a tighter arena of confrontation. Some testimony at the hearing recommended that we help smaller powers bordering on the Indian Ocean, like Australia and Iran, to build modern navies. One witness, in fact, pointed to Israel’s Air Force as an example of what a small but sophisticated military force can do. In this regard, the report of a billion dollar Anglo-American arms program for Iran should not be overlooked. In this complexity, the State Department’s caution against great expectation from the Sisco visit is well taken. The current internal convulsions among the Arab politicians do not create a platform on which Israel can or should risk accepting a bargain with such transitory regimes that now exist in the Arab world. Thus the Department is in effect keeping the pilot light aglow for an agreement but it is really only waiting for the Arab cauldrons on the big burners to simmer down.

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