JOHANNESBURG (Jan. 16)
What is being termed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is in reality an increased Russian presence in that landlocked Indo-Iranian republic. Two years ago the Russians supported the successful coup by Afghanistan’s Khalq (Communist) Party. At the time the Americans played the wait-and-see game, wondering how Marx and Muhammed would fore in such close proximity.
Yet neither the Christian West nor the Moslem East had as much as glanced at how the Communist north had long subdued other mainly Indo-Iranian land — Tadzhikistan SSR and its several million souls. Then their top priority in the Middle East appeared to be the legitimization of the Palestine Liberation Organization and idle discussions of “Zionism is racism.” Small wonder that Israel-was then still aiding the Mengistu government of Ethiopia against the Somalia-Egypt axis, on the side in effect of the Warsaw Pact.
Now the Russians’ southernmost bases in Afghanistan are a mere missile’s throw from the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which guards the entrance to the Persian Gulf oil states. And Russia is closer than it has ever been to the shores of the Indian Ocean, whose waters beckon beyond a very restive Baluchistan spread from southeast Iron to southwest Pakistan.
Hence the excitement among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, not to mention the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). For President Carter the hostage drama in Teheran has become a case of 20 million Afghan hostages and billions of oil barrels. For the moment Iran’s fascist Shiite Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini is caught between the two superpowers. And feudal Saudi Arabia is trying desperately to muster support in the Islamic world, beyond the ineffectual Arab League numbering among its members friends of the Soviet Union.
SEVERAL SALIENT VIEWS
As far as Israel is concerned, a couple of recently expressed views appear salient. Prof. Ralf Dahrendorf of the London School of Economics says that the latest events in Afghanistan have not directly harmed Israel’s security and, indeed, might even bolster the Jewish State politically. He feels that the U.S. might now recognize Israel as among its true allies in the region, and expects the Afghan crisis to help other Middle East states identify their real enemies in the right places — and to improve their understanding of Israel in international deliberations.
Another opinion was expressed by Israel’s former Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan, who feels that it has become vital for Israel to now help defuse its conflict with the Moslem world. One way of doing this, he suggests, is to make progress on the subject of Palestinian autonomy.
To be sure, it can do Israel no harm to odd its voice to those troubled by the loss, it seems, of independence of a fellow west Asian country, be it Moslem, secular, or whatever. And if the mainly Arab rejectionist front is for now looking eastward, that also reduces the danger to an extent.
But Israel cannot be satisfied with recognizing such changing factors passively. Indeed, Premier Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat joined at Aswan last week in expressing an identity of outlook on events in Afghanistan. Here may be sensed the beginning of a regional process, modestly perhaps for the subregions between the Nile and the Euphrates, yet hopefully also for the Middle East region as a whole.
POSSIBILITY OF MIDEAST REGIONALISM
It is premature — though by no means unrealistic — to speak of Middle East regionalism along the lines of the European Economic Community (EEC). North Africa — Larbory — is split between the Maghreb and the Nile valley states. The Semitic subregion is quite Balkanized among republicans and royalists and other divisions.
Turkestan is for the most part under Communist rule. The Indo-Iranian of Tadzhikistan and now Afghanistan suffer the some fate, and Iran and Pakistan are having great internal difficulties with Baluchistan, Kurdistan and Pakhtunistan. And there are those who would regard Mediterranean Europe a part of the Middle East, too.
Whether one takes the agreement between Chaim Weizmann and the Emir Feisal Bin Hussein of two generations ago as the point of departure, or the recent Sadat-Begin agreement, the Middle East appears in dire need of a Jean Monnet-Walter Hallstein-Robert Schuman team, the co-founders of the EEC. Regional cooperation will prove to be the best guarantee of true independence, economically and even in terms of self-defense against powers for the moment stronger than the divided house of the Middle East.
True the Middle East is a long way from that Arabian Nights vision “Each portion of her charms we see, seems of the whole a simile.” Yet the Afghanistan crisis has brought a glimmer of regional understanding to at least some Middle Easterners. If so, the price of the lesson has still been very high–over 20 million Afghans, among them some 100 Afghan Jews.