Israel wants to see the formation of a peace front composed of all states in the Middle East that, abjuring force, embrace negotiation as the sole means to resolve their conflicts.
This is surely the import of the Israeli government’s conciliatory approach in the past year. Such a grouping would be a logical participant in the regional economic plan broached recently by Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Egypt, Israel and Jordan are the natural initial associates in such a peace coalition, especially in the face of spreading aggression, subversion and terrorism.
It is in all their national interests to draw nearer to each other, for their stability and security are threatened by the same forces of fanaticism and violence whose ambitions converge in what amounts to a war front: Syrian imperialism, Iranian fundamentalism, PLO irredentism--a fervently anti-Western, anti-democratic coalition.
The war front is concerted, in effect, by the pivotal role that is played by Damascus. Syria seeks to displace its old rival Egypt as the dominant political, military and intellectual leader of the Arab world. The government of Hafez Assad pursues its hegemonistic ambition to create a “Greater Syria” that would incorporate or control Lebanon and Jordan. It provides sanctuary and support for the most vicious terrorist gangs that focus their violence on all moderate elements in the region. It is the main Arab force that means to extirpate Israel.
And Syria maintains a cyncial de facto alliance with Iran. Together with Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization, they represent the culture of violence increasingly rampant in the Arab/Muslim world.
Assad has fortified his ambition by creating a mighty military machine. The buildup began right after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It accelerated after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem, when Assad became apprehensive that a peace between Egypt and Israel would remove Egypt from the front line of Arab military confrontation with Israel. The 1982 Lebanon war sped up the process.
The effort has been prodigious. Since 1973 Damascus has spent more than $19 billion on arms--$3.3 billion in 1985 alone. The Soviet Union has been the crucial force in supplying arms, training and advice.
Syria’s armed forces have grown from 300,000 to 500,000, and 3,000 Soviet “advisers” train them at virtually every level down to field units. Moscow has made it possible for Syria to nearly double its armored and mechanized divisions, from five in 1982 to nine this year--with a tank force of more than 4,000, including 1,000 late-model Soviet T-72 tanks.
Top priority has been given to air power. Syria now has more than 600 combat aircraft, including advanced Sukhoi jet fighters. It has doubled its surface-to-air missile batteries from 80 to 160, supplied with two Soviet surface-to-air missile sites and SS-21 ground missiles.
Key terrorist groups have their headquarters, training camps and bases either in Syria proper or on Syrian-controlled territory in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Distinctions among the various factions are essentially irrelevant. These fanatics share a deadly hostility to Israel and to all Middle East moderates. They hate each other solely because they disagree on the strategy and tactics of the terrorism that they would all deploy to destroy Israel.
In such a world, differences of tactics inescapably lead to mutual excommunication and power struggles to the death. For the democratic world to draw nice distinctions, where there are no real differences, will inevitably paralyze action against terrorism. The assassination of the moderate pro-Jordan mayor of the city of Nablus (Shechem) shows how vulnerable Arab moderates, standing alone, are to fanaticism. They need a peace front with Israel, and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is the anchor for it.
King Hussein has already made clear his alienation from the Palestine Liberation Organization, and has only to muster the courage to take one step further toward peace with Israel. And Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak need only join Hussein in rejecting Yasser Arafat.
Another natural associate in the peace front is the substantial moderate element among Palestinian Arabs, who are increasingly weary of the PLO’s coercion and are looking for a strong lead from Cairo and Amman. Such bold resolve would give pause to their enemies, neutralize the intimidation that holds the region in its grip, and thus strengthen their regimes.
If Egypt and Jordan, joined by other Arab countries that claim to be moderate, would stand with Israel to deny aggression and terrorism the fruits of their ambition, the promise of regional peace would begin to be realized.