Behind the Headlines March Resistance Led to August Accord

Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and his top aides were compared by one observer here, not altogether unkindly, to a team of salesmen trying to impress prospective customers with the merits of their merchandise in a well-prepared assault of soft-shell and blandishments.

At the Knesset reception on the evening of the first shuttle round, at subsequent working sessions with the Israeli negotiating team, at a closed briefing to newspaper editors, at informal meetings with newsmen and other opinion-makers Kissinger and his State Department squad waxed lavish in their praise for the settlement-in-the-making. Their praise was spiced with dire prognoses of what would happen if, heaven forbid, the settlement were not concluded. All the alternatives were painted, as is Kissinger’s method, in the most somber hues.

The Israeli leaders, meanwhile, were engaged in a soft-shell of their own which coincided with the Kissinger campaign — but also went beyond it. Premier Yitzhak Rabin and his negotiating team also argued at countless official and informal forums that the settlement was the best, if not the only, option available to Israel.

But beyond that the Israeli government leaders must convince their public of another important point: that this settlement was not attainable last March, when the shuttle was suspended in deadlock. The cards are stacked against the government. Newspaper commentators here have by and large reached a unanimous verdict: that what was concluded this weekend could have been concluded in March, if Israel had conceded then what she conceded now.

The commentators asked pointedly: Has good or harm accrued to Israel in the March-August intermission. Has “standing up to the Americans cans” and “saying no to Kissinger” brought profit to the Jewish State? Or is the scar caused by the near-rupture in relations which followed the suspension still discernible, a permanent imprint in Jerusalem-Washington ties which the successful conclusion of the talks will not completely heal.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MARCH AND AUGUST

What, then, are the differences between March and August? Israeli negotiators, as advocates of their case, obviously stress those favorable to Israel: the matter of duration, the U.S. presence in the Mitle and Gidi Passes, the coastal corridor to Abu Rodeis and the provisions on economic and diplomatic warfare.

They underplay the one really major Israeli concession since March: the Passes. They insist that Israel, by retaining a hold on the eastern entrances to the Passes, including the towering Jebel Gidi Mountain, and by retaining the Umm Hasheiba warning station, and by continuing to encircle the Passes on three sides (north, east and south) can be still said fairly to have the Passes in her grasp, if no longer in her actual hands.

“I should just like to see the Egyptians try to move into those passes…” one top policy maker said here significantly. Israeli military men believe that at the first sign of such an Egyptian advance the Israeli army would pounce back into the Passes with relative ease.

The key question, then, is: If Israel had offered in March to withdraw to the eastern edge of the Passes, would it have been able to attain the other, favorable, changes in the terms of the agreement which Egypt has offered now and which it refused to offer then?

Many commentators here have already replied, in their press analyses, to this question in the affirmative. Government negotiators insist the answer is negative. They recall that towards the end of the March shuttle Israel offered to relinquish half of the Passes, which is not all that much less than it is relinquishing now (they argue), yet Egypt refused to accept the other terms.

Egypt refused a duration of three years, offering 18 months at the outside; it refused to limit its control of the coastal corridor to civilian traffic and administration; it refused to consider U.S. presence at Umm Hasheiba and a parallel Egyptian monitoring station (the proposal for additional, independent, U.S. presence only came up later); and it refused to moderate significantly the Arab boycott on firms trading with Israel.

PLEDGES NOW OBTAINED

Now, however, President Anwar Sadat has accepted, more or less, all of these terms, the Israeli officials argue. Three years minimum duration is guaranteed by pledges from both sides to the U.S. to renew the United Nations Energy Force mandate annually. The coastal strip will be under Egyptian civilian control with only civilian traffic on the road — though Israel will continue to be allowed military traffic.

There will also be U.S. technicians at Umm Hasheiba, at the Egyptian Station, and at two more manned stations and several U.S. unmanned “sensors” in the Passes area. The boycott provision — also an indirect undertaking made through the U.S. — will cover much more than the meager list of half-a-dozen American companies proposed by the Egyptians in March.

Most probably, only the historian, with the perspective of hindsight and detachment, will be able to authoritatively assess the two arguments and decide between them. The same essentially unanswerable questions have been posed regarding the American political and aid commitment to Israel which are another vital part of the settlement complex. Would these have been attainable in March, if the settlement had been concluded then? Many commentators say there is no reason to think they would not have been attainable.

After all, much recrimination and bitterness has passed between Washington and Jerusalem since March, and if these pledges and more tangible expressions of support are extended now, after the nadir in relations, surely they would have been available then when relations were at a zenith of close cordiality.

But the counter-argument sounds equally cogent, and some officials here advance it; the U.S. has proved forthcoming now precisely because the Rabin government stood up to it in March, saying “no” and facing the consequences. A weaker line in March, this argument goes, would have led not to greater largesse from Washington, but to greater pressure.

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