Right now the Arabs and Israelis agree on only one issue: they dislike the rapidly developing rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The reason is obvious--both are afraid that their protectors will settle the Middle East dispute over their heads and then impose the settlement on them. And that would bring an end to the supply of money and of arms from protectors to proteges. The recent process of big-power disentanglement from the Middle East has been speeded-up, preceded by a cooling of relations between the United States and Israel and between the Soviet Union and the Arabs, plus the beginnings of warmth in relations between the United States and the Arabs, through the Palestine Liberation Organization, and between Israel and the Soviet Union.
During the last decade, U.S.-Israel relations had become essentially military in the context of the Cold War, perhaps best expressed by the term "strategic alliance." Israel, for the United States, was a bastion, a forward base, to be protected and maintained and built up for possible use in World War III--hence the U.S. built airfields in southern Israel, improved Israeli ports and facilities, stored supplies and spare parts, cooperated in arms-development and intelligence-gathering. Israel's designated role in the crucial first hours of World War III was to have its air force destroy the Russian Mediterranean fleet. That air force was therefore far more powerful than would be needed to deal with all of the Arab air forces and helps explain the billions of U.S. dollars for Israel's "defense."
Today, merely listing these areas of military cooperation makes the arrangement sound anachronistic and outdated. If, as both U.S. and Soviet leaders have proclaimed, "the Cold War is over," preparations for a hot war are obsolete. As strategic theorists in Israel admit, without the context of a global conflict between the Big Two, the Middle East confrontation becomes just another regional squabble of no particular bipolar significance, like Cambodia, and not even as urgent as Afghanistan. Then Israel's strategic value would be not merely reduced, it would become irrelevant. Commenting on this probability, a recent cartoon in an Israeli newspaper shows a NATO soldier giving this order to an Israeli soldier: "Dismissed." And, in practical terms, if the U.S. defense budget is to be cut, then U.S. arms aid to Israel would also be reduced.
No wonder Israelis are, to put it mildly, worried and throw buckets of icy water on the U.S.-Soviet coming-together. For them it is "precipitate" and "immature" and "specious." A U.S.-Israel distancing would not arise without other policy differences. The United States has been irritated by Israel's handling of the Palestinian intifada, its continuing military relationship with South Africa, its willingness to purloin U.S. secrets and its stalling on the Middle East peace process--particularly on the Baker plan. Meanwhile, Israel is unhappy with the United States--for continuing talks with the PLO in Tunis and for arms-sales to various Arab countries; Israel has tried and failed to stop both activities.
The relationship between the Soviets and the Arabs has always been much less close than the one between the United States and Israel, a difference in both quality and quantity. The Soviet objective has been essentially negative: Realizing that the Muslim Arabs would never "go communist," all the Soviets have wanted the Arabs to do is keep out of the U.S. orbit. What the Arabs have asked of the Soviets is that they continue selling them arms and act as a diplomatic counterweight to the United States, especially in the United Nations.
Both aspirations are endangered by big-power rapprochement. The Soviet ambassador to Syria, Moscow's closest friend and ally in the Arab world (South Yemen is merely a satellite), has said publicly that the Soviets would only provide Syria with the arms necessary for reasonable self-defense and that Moscow expected to be paid for them. So much for Syrian President Hafez Assad's ambition of reaching "strategic equality" with Israel.
One aspect of growing cordiality between Israel and the communist bloc is that the Soviets and their friends have become less critical of Israel at the United Nations and have even abstained on some anti-Israel resolutions. Among the Eastern Bloc countries, only the Soviet Union still refuses to resume diplomatic relations with Israel unless it makes a step forward in its relations with the PLO. Last week the Polish foreign minister felt it necessary to go to Tunis to pay a visit to Arab League and PLO headquarters, to explain why Poland--among other East European countries--was re-establishing relations with Israel.
What particularly angers the Arabs--because it puzzles them--is that the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc should be relaxing toward Israel when its leaders are trying to crush the Palestinian national struggle and, especially, when Israel no longer has the power to influence U.S. attitudes or policies toward the Soviet Union.
What the Arabs see as a particularly objectionable and unnecessary please-Israel, please-America move is the Soviet decision to allow ever larger numbers of Jews to emigrate to Israel. The Arabs cannot and do not oppose Jewish emigration as such; what they criticize, fairly cautiously so far, is Moscow's acquiescence to Israeli conditions. Israel would deter the Jewish emigres from going to the country of their choice, insisting that they only emigrate to Israel, conditions that 90% of the emigres have been avoiding. For the Soviet Union to help Israel build up the East European segment of its population is, for Arabs, an act of direct hostility--and all because of the new spirit of detente. Just last month a senior member of the PLO's executive committee said, bitterly, "We can no longer rely on the Soviet Union. It's doing its own thing."
As part of the big-power understanding to pacify the Middle East, the superpowers are as one in condemning the regional arms race and they will eventually try to stop it. The United States and the Soviet Union particularly disapprove of the proliferation of missiles on both sides. The Israelis and Arabs resent big-power attempts, as they see them, to freeze the status quo and keep Middle East nations "backward" in armaments. More, the Arabs know that they would suffer more than Israel would from any arms embargo.
Ultimately, Israelis and Arabs are afraid that a detente-inspired U.S.-Soviet agreement on the Middle East would mean joint pressure on them to be good boys and stop fighting. The political terms on which they would be pacified are not likely to please either side. Some years ago British philosopher Bertrand Russell produced a slender volume on "Nightmares of Eminent Persons," one being a big-power agreement on carving up the world. What may happen in the rest of the world is slowly approaching reality in the Middle East. To avoid such an outcome, the Third World may well try to keep the Cold War going.