CAIRO — Egypt has always been at the geographic crossroads of the world. But today Egypt faces challenges from a new crossroads--a crossroads of conflicting demands on the Egyptian people internally, regionally and internationally.
Egypt, by initiating a process of peace in 1977, set in motion a new challenge that is transforming the exceedingly difficult Arab-Israeli confrontation from the arena of war to an arena in which peace could be made possible.
This peace momentum has put the Egyptian position in a new focus. Egypt is no longer a solid member of the Arab bloc in a state of war with Israel. It has come to be in the unique position of being the biggest Arab country while at the same time being in a state of peace with Israel, trying to carry that peace over from the limited Egyptian-Israeli sphere to produce a more comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. The Egyptian government and people have a commitment to this kind of peace, or least to a growing process that can reach its fruition in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
This effort by Egypt has offered advantages in the last few years, but equally it imposes on Egypt increasing demands. When the momentum toward peace slows, negative pressures increase--both on the internal front, where the criticism of the peace process grows, and on the regional front, where Middle East tensions and violence intensify.
So Egypt has to work on both sides of the equation--the Israeli side and the Palestinian-Arab side. Egypt has to try to create an atmosphere in which these two sides find it beneficial to indulge in negotiations rather than continued war--if not on the battlefield, then in the many less-obvious ways of jabbing at each other endlessly.
But on both sides of the equation Egypt confronts contradiction. The Israeli public is split on the future of the West Bank and Gaza, and on how to deal with the rights of the Palestinian people under occupation. And, under a coalition government, interest groups such as the Israeli settlers' lobby tend to influence policy in a way that reflects a power much greater than these settlers really have, because the coalition is glued together in such a way that any little change might break it.
On the Arab side the Palestine Liberation Organization, spread all over the Arab world from Yemen to Tunis with no home base, is such a loose coalition that it is very difficult for its leaders to take the risk of peace. The Arab governments, members of the Arab League, have taken different positions that allow them at best a general stand but not the flexibility to move in a process that requires give and take.
To complicate the matter further, the United States, which has acted as the main underwriter of the peace process, has shifted toward a less-evenhanded position. In the past few years Washington has tended to take an exceedingly negative attitude toward Palestinian rights, and has adopted a policy of support toward Israeli faits accomplis that in the long run tends to favor Israeli extremists and cuts the ground out from under Israeli moderates.
Egypt as the champion of moderation in the Middle Eastern conflict has to face these contradictions in both camps. It has tried to do that by seeking initiatives to ascertain that the peoples of the Middle East can best fulfill their aspirations in movements toward peace rather than in entrenching themselves in irreconcilable positions of conflict. The PLO and Jordan, by adopting a formula of working together to constitute one delegation, have opted to turn to the peace process. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' assertions that Israel, or at least the Labor Party, is willing to trade territory for peace have given us some hope that a new peace initiative is being prepared.
Being realistic, however, we know the political limitations on both sides. That is why we need a more active and open-minded American position to help with peace on two counts: Palestinian representation in the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation should be accepted by the United States, and the Kissinger caveat against talking with the PLO should be overcome. After all, to ask people under occupation to recognize the right of their occupier to exist without a quid pro quo is unheard of in human history. The U.S. government's refusal to talk to the Palestinians while talking to all other peoples of the world is absurd.
The American position of uncritical support of Israeli policy at all times has tended to give the extremists in Israel a measure of respectability: America has tended to cover their mistakes, and then to pay for some of the political and economic costs of those mistakes.
The Israeli public has acted maturely at times, as when it pressured its government to leave Lebanon. But Israelis have not faced up to the implications of the policy of continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. If the present policy is allowed to continue, Israel and its occupied territories will have a huge population of Arabs, and that will mean a community that is not Jewish--with two nationalities clashing, with two languages clashing, and eventually with strife becoming institutionalized. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians would be able to fulfill their dreams, and the Palestinians still would have no national home.
Egypt has sought to assist in solving this dilemma. It is time for America to renew its sponsorship of the search for peace. The deadlock will give way much sooner if the Europeans and the Soviet Union, too, are given a role.