Skip to Content

But what do we do about the Arabs? (Fortune, 1967)

Editor’s note: Occasionally Fortune publishes a favorite story from its magazine archives. In light of the recent uprising in Gaza, we take a look back to our September 1, 1967 issue and an article about the aftermath of the Six-Day War.

Two decades ago, in the eyes of nearly all Arabs, the U.S. towered over every other major power. Today America is a curse on the lips of many of the most intelligent and moderate in their ranks. “At this moment,” claims an embittered Princeton-educated former Jordanian minister, “there is no Arab more extreme than the other. What I say about the U.S. is being said by every Kuwaiti, Saudi, or Libyan. Like Churchill, we are ready to make an alliance with the devil to keep ourselves alive.” An American historian declares flatly that “not since the Boxer Rebellion has there been as rapid and ubiquitous a revulsion against a foreign power as there has been against the U.S. in the Middle East.” And a man who once helped formulate our Arab policy sadly acknowledges that “our ability to play a role in that region has never been less than it is today.”

This gloomy assessment is shared by many well-informed people in the U.S.—in government and outside. Some knowledgeable specialists in the State Department are very concerned about the precipitous decline in our influence. So are the most respected academic experts on the Middle East and, when they are willing to discuss it, American businessmen with interests and long experience in the Arab lands. Their fears, together with the outrage and despair of Arabs who were once among America’s closest friends, suggest the time has come for a realistic, full-scale reappraisal of our objectives in the Arab world, their priorities, and the means by which they can best be attained.

The stakes are great, and go far beyond our obvious interest in the safety of Israel. In a world of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Middle East has lost some of its historic value as a strategic geographic area. Some, but not all. For the region is still the fastest, cheapest transportation route—by air or sea—between Western Europe and Asia. And still more important, beneath its desert sands lie close to 300 billion barrels of petroleum, about three-fourths of the non-Communist world’s proved reserves. Daily production of the Arab wells totals more than nine million barrels. According to oil consultant Walter Levy, the complete loss of this oil could not be made up by any combination of other sources within a decade—if at all. Western Europe imports 5,600,000 barrels of Arab oil each day, 65 percent of its requirements, and Japan 1,200,000 (60 percent). If the Russians should achieve domination of the Arab countries, as many Arabs now fear they will, they could blackmail both Western Europe and Japan by threatening to turn off the taps and cripple their economies. The ultimate price for assured oil supplies, some American diplomats grimly speculate, could well be a sharp diminution of U.S. influence in Europe and Asia.

The major goal of most of our efforts in the Middle East is to keep that from happening. There are serious doubts today that we are succeeding. The Communist camel poked his nose under the tent in 1955 when Egyptian President Nasser, rebuffed by the U.S., turned to Czechoslovakia for weapons. In the years since, the beast has steadily made new encroachments. None of the Arab countries can yet be labeled Red satellites, but the Russian gains have been impressive and worrisome. In Syria, where a series of coups d’etat has wiped out layer on layer of educated leaders and many of those who remain are leftists, the army is Russian equipped and largely directed by Soviet advisers. Egypt, its economy almost bankrupt and its expensive military machine shattered, is more dependent than ever on Russian assistance. Two years after the elimination of Premier Ben Bella, Algeria still truculently proclaims its close friendship with Russia. And these are three of the weightiest Arab nations.

Underlying elements of strength remain to us: only recently escaped from colonial rule, the Arabs are not anxious to hand over their independence; even Nasser has kept local Communists under control and has moved quietly to restore communication with the U.S. And Communism, as an ideology, is incompatible with the Arabs’ dominant Islamic faith. That said, though, re-emergence of the dormant Arab-Israeli conflict has so polarized Middle Eastern politics that there is danger that nearly all the Arab countries will ally themselves with the Soviet Union in opposition to Israel and its protector, the U.S. Anti-Communist Arabs frantically warn that this is already happening. According to a Lebanese statesman whose pro-Western credentials are beyond reproach, “The U.S. must ask itself this central question: ‘Are we ready to hand over the Middle East to the Russians?'”

Measured against the U.S. Government’s own formally enunciated goals, our present approach can hardly be termed a rousing success. We have failed to keep the Russians out or under control. We were unable to prevent an outbreak of hostilities. The Suez Canal is closed once more. Continued access to the oil, on acceptable terms, remains in doubt. It can even be argued that Israel’s long-term security and prosperity, far from being enhanced, are today in greater jeopardy.

Some of these aims, it must be conceded, are so ambitious as to be almost unrealistic; perhaps no policy devised by human ingenuity can ever attain them all. Washington officials warn that “the first thing to remember is that we aren’t God.” One observes: “We found out in this latest Middle Eastern crisis that even we and the Soviets together couldn’t give orders and expect people to snap their heels and come to attention.” There is much to this. The Arab world is not a “world” but a sprawling, diffuse collection of thirteen states with little in common but language. Our goals there are sometimes contradictory, as we seek to remain friendly with states antagonistic to one another. Our tools are limited: our military strength is unusable, our aid programs are hedged with restrictions demanded by Congress, and persuasion is often ineffective. In a sense, moreover, our efforts are subject to a double veto: Israel and its supporters can establish one boundary to our policy, and the oil-producing Arab states another.

The loud, persuasive voice

The U.S. is actually confronted with two different though related sets of problems. The first, ever present in the background and at times totally overshadowing the other, arises out of our very special friendship with Israel. Virtually all the Arab countries’ leaders came to power after Israel’s establishment, and therefore began relations with the U.S. tacitly accepting our close ties with the Jewish state we had helped create. While the Middle East is quiet those ties can usually be ignored in the interests of cooperation. But when periodically the two sides clash, as they did over passage through the Gulf of Aqaba, U.S. support of Israel produces a poisonous Arab reaction.

The second group of complications have their origin in the frequently waspish relations among the Arab nations themselves. For a number of years this has really meant relations of each of the other nations with Nasser. Other regimes must come to grips with the Egyptian leader because he is, however much they may deplore it, the most popular political leader in the Arab world and the only Arab to whom both the big powers pay much attention. And he has evinced ambitions about his and Egypt’s role in the Arab world that almost inevitably pose threats to leaders of the oil-producing lands, where our greatest material interests lie.

Nasser appears to be aiming for eventual unification of the Arab world under his domination. Part of his motivation is probably personal ambition. But he also seems to persuade millions that the welfare of Egypt and even the other Arabs will thereby be served. Wealth and population are unevenly distributed in the Middle East; Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Libya have lots of oil and few people, while Egypt is poor and crowded. Thus a combination, Nasser believes, would benefit everyone. And the region’s political power, he reasons, would be enhanced if it spoke on the world stage with one voice. In his efforts, though, Nasser has run afoul of the nationalist aspirations of other Arab rulers, who are unwilling to submit to his leadership. While his appeal to the masses is great and extends to literally all of the Arab lands, he is regarded as a threat by many of their leaders—especially King Hussein of Jordan, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, King Hassan of Morocco, and President Bourguiba of Tunisia.

In his drive to unify and lead the Arabs, Nasser has tried a number of different tactics. He joined with Syria and, later in 1958, Yemen, to form the United Arab Republic, then sadly watched its dissolution three years later after a Syrian Army revolt. He has been accused by other Arab chieftains of plotting to overthrow or assassinate them. He has employed Radio Cairo to pour out a steady stream of vilification on those who opposed him. He intervened in Yemen’s civil war to gain a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula and to ensure a friendly regime in Aden when the British depart. More recently, of course, he used the tension of the confrontation with Israel to force Hussein into a military pact. None of these stratagems has really been successful. From time to time, disappointed and chastened, Nasser retires behind his own borders vowing to concentrate on Egypt’s internal economic problems. But an American acquaintance suggests that those problems are so staggering that Nasser can bear to look at them for only six months or so and then begins longing again for his old foreign adventures.

The official U.S. attitude toward Nasser has swung wildly from ardent cultivation to near-ostracism. A former government official who knows the Egyptian president well contends that we have always handled him exactly wrong—wooing him when we should have been firm and hitting him too hard when the wooing didn’t work. Thus in the early days of the Kennedy Administration, he suggests, we were overgenerous in granting aid to Egypt, then too precipitate in withdrawing it four years later when Nasser displeased us. Egyptian resentment was heightened by the fact that in the year before withdrawal 98 percent of the aid was food, which made it appear that we were condemning Egypt’s poor to starvation out of spite.

There are those who believe, however, that we had lost any hope of getting along with Nasser long before that. They label the Israeli raid on the Gaza Strip in February, 1955, the beginning of the end. Nasser was appalled to discover, when the Israeli troops poured into Gaza, that they could just as easily have swept on to Cairo. He demanded that the U.S. sell him arms to counterbalance the Israeli strength. After months of unsuccessful haggling, he announced a deal with the Czechs for weapons in amounts and varieties far greater than anything he had asked from the U.S. In July, 1956, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, retaliated by backing down on commitments to help build the high dam at Aswan. A week later Nasser seized the Suez Canal, and three months after that Israel, Britain, and France invaded Egypt. Ultimately, of course, the U.S. played a major role in forcing the invaders out. But Dulles’ legalistic rationalizations fanned little warmth in Egyptian breasts; some Egyptians blame us for bringing about the crisis in the first place.

In our dealings with other Arab countries, we have always been influenced by the thought of Nasser in the background. Thus we have quickly cooled to Arabs who seemed to share Nasser’s radical aims: Syria, the Yemeni Republicans, sometimes Iraq. And we have been solicitous of those who appeared potential counterweights to Nasser. The most striking example, of course, is Jordan, where we have poured millions into an effort to create a viable economy in a state almost without resources. The weakness in this balancing policy has always been the Israeli question. When the Middle East is evenly divided between the revolutionaries and the conservatives, our material interests are reasonably protected. But where Israel is concerned, no Arab leader is secure enough to stand by us while we maintain a posture of favoritism. It seems fair to ask if we might improve our prospects in the Arab world, and indirectly further Israel’s best long-term interests, by a more visibly evenhanded approach.

A commitment abandoned

Evenhandedness, of course, is not always easy to attain. At times it is impossible. When Nasser announced the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, there was no middle ground. The U.S. had to accept it or oppose it; we opposed it. Similarly, when an intransigent Arab leader puts us in a position that challenges our commitment to Israel’s existence, we have no room for maneuver. But there have been many examples of Jess inevitable partiality in the past that had already conditioned the Arabs to regard us as completely in the Israeli camp when trouble came. Official government aid to Israel ($1.1 billion), for example, almost equals that given Egypt over the past two decades—although Egypt has eleven times as many people. in that same period another $1 billion in private aid, by means of tax-deductible contributions to the United Jewish Appeal, has tipped the balance even more. And while the U.S. Government seldom hesitates to threaten the cutoff of aid when Arab regimes displease us, only at the time of the Suez invasion of 1956 did we use that stick on Israel. Much as we deplored the Israeli attack in June, we did not employ all the pressure available to us to head it off. After the cease-fire, moreover, the U.S. posture in the United Nations was plainly on the side of Israel. However compelling our reasons, we abandoned an unconditional seventeen-year-old commitment—reaffirmed as recently as May 23 by President Johnson—to the territorial integrity of all the states in the Middle East. We also abstained on the Pakistani resolution deploring Israel’s take-over of Jerusalem, although we had publicly criticized such action. Not surprisingly, even the more moderate Arabs were outraged.

Some studies of what can be done to restore our badly damaged position are under way in the government, but there is reason to doubt that they are as searching and critical as the situation may require. Early in the crisis, President Johnson appointed a special task force run by former White House aide McGeorge Bundy, giving the impression that Washington was taking a hard new look at our policies. But Bundy has now gone back to his duties at the Ford Foundation and is spending only part time on the Washington project. Officials are at pains, moreover, to deny that any criticism of the past was implied by the task force’s appointment. It was designed merely to help coordinate operations related to Middle Eastern problems, they explain.

“Opinion is a very flexible thing”

The fact is that Washington policy makers, while they insist they are not complacent, seem remarkably unalarmed. Consoled by what they call disastrous Soviet losses, they discount the view of moderate Arabs that our own losses have been even more severe. They appear to regard Arab emotions as not truly a factor in the equation, or at least as too unreliable to consider in planning future action. Some speak confidently, and even condescendingly, of how fickle those emotions are. (“Opinion is a very flexible thing in the Arab world,” a responsible official remarks. “An Egyptian journalist once told me that it takes three days to change public opinion in Egypt.”) They count heavily on the traditional divisions of the Arab world and fear of Communism to send some of its leaders scurrying back to us for aid and protection.

They also recognize the formidable built-in political resistance to any consideration of new directions in American Middle Eastern policies. The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens neither know nor care anything about the region. Most of those who do care are emotionally partial to Israel, and many of these are effectively vocal in their support. Few of the remainder can or will make themselves heard. Either they are dissuaded by fears of being labeled anti-Semitic, or their small voices are lost in the void of public indifference.

This near-unanimous backing for Israel handicaps U.S. diplomats in the Arab world. In the recent fighting, certainly, Israel benefited from the fact that the Syrians and Egyptians had provoked the crisis and had made noisy threats about their intentions. But the American public’s sympathy for Israel has been obvious throughout the little country’s history. “There’s nothing we can do about that partiality,” says a former U.S. ambassador to a major Arab capital. “It’s the great embarrassment of the official policy in the Middle East.”

The one-sided attitude of the American public, moreover, reflects more than their sympathetic feelings about the Israelis. Americans react negatively to their image of the Arabs as backward, cruel, largely uncivilized desert dwellers—an image, according to one Arab scholar, derived from dimly recalled, badly taught Sunday-school stories and unconscious religious hostility toward Islam. There is no real knowledge to counter the myths. Certainly there is little awareness of the Arabs’ illustrious history, a fact that infuriates them. And far too often the Arabs, as some of them admit, have been their own worst enemies. Many of their leaders have offended U.S. voters and their representatives. Extravagant language is much admired in the Arab world, for example, but Americans tend to take it at face value.

On the other hand, we have made no effort whatever to look at the problems of the Middle East through Arab eyes. To do so is to begin to discern the dimensions of their grievances. There are many—not all of them entirely realistic. Many Arabs believe we want them militarily weak and divided, which may well be true so long as Nasser remains the obvious candidate to lead a united Arab world. They suspect we want to retain, through our aid programs and other means, much of the influence of the old colonial powers. They charge that we have brought them into the cold war by forcing Egypt to turn to the Communists for weapons and by labeling neutrality immoral. They complain that our assistance to them is niggardly and motivated not by friendship but by self-interest. These grievances have long existed, but they have been given special force by dramatization of the more serious Arab charge that we are blatantly partial where Israel is concerned. So strongly do they feel about this that many who reject Nasser’s charges of direct U.S. involvement in the war regard our financial and diplomatic support of Israel as almost equally reprehensible.

The irreplaceable oil

Only the complaint about Israel is universal. But it has inflamed even basically pro-Western Arabs so much that many are now inclined to endorse the other accusations as well. And the compulsion to strike back jeopardizes, to a greater degree than ever before, our stake in the Arab countries’ oil. There is considerable reluctance, on the part of American oilmen no less than government officials, to make much of this stake in public. They realize that it i8 all but impossible, in a nation with the popular traditions of the U.S., to suggest that material interests should be weighed along with such human considerations as Israel ‘s welfare. It is senseless, however, not to face up to the very real possibility of the loss of the oil and the implications of such a loss.

In ten years, development of alternative sources of energy could reduce Arab oil’s importance drastically. But for now it is quite literally irreplaceable. Even the present partial boycott has created serious hardships for Britain. The added transportation costs and higher prices for substitute oil amount to roughly $1 million a day. The U.S., whose Arab petroleum imports amounted to only 350,000 barrels a day, has not suffered, but individual American companies have been hurt (see page 86). As a group, U.S. oil firms have a gross investment of nearly $3 billion ($1.5 billion net after depreciation) in the Arab lands, and their profits from production there last year amounted to more than $1 billion.

It is by no means clear what the oil companies’ fate will be. The largest Arab oil-producing states, thus far, have not shown great enthusiasm for the total shutdown advocated by some Arab countries. The measures they have taken, in fact, were the least they could do as members of the Arab world. But oilmen still have their fingers crossed. An unhappy executive in Beirut says, “It would be difficult for me to lay a bet on our being here five years from now, and if we are the situation won’t be easy.”

Yet immediate nationalization of the fields and expulsion of the foreign operating companies is unlikely. The idea has long appealed to many Arab leaders, including some whom the U.S. Government regards as friends. Even splitting the proceeds about sixty-forty with the companies, and selling at the lowest prices in the world ($1.59 per barrel for Kuwaiti oil compared with $2.27 for Venezuelan crude), the oil-producing countries take in an estimated $2.5 billion a year in royalties and taxes from the oil firms. If they could keep all the selling price, and could agree among themselves to raise that price, the wealth generated-for economic development or weapons—would be staggering. Nationalization, however, would be far from easy to carry out. Arab experts agree that all the countries would have to take the step together and this just doesn’t seem to he in the cards under the present circumstances.

Even if the countries could coordinate nationalization, they would face the formidable problem of selling their oil. The marketing outlets in the major oil-consuming regions are in private hands. Unless the evicted companies agreed to buy the oil, forgoing their share of the most profitable phase of the business, the Arabs would have almost no place to turn. “It would be very difficult to replace the financial resources of the Western world.” admits an Arab petroleum expert.

If nationalization is only a remote threat, however, some form of painful squeeze on the companies is probable. A continuation of the crisis, in fact. seems likely to bring unwelcome changes in the structure of the industry. The French are vigorously seeking to convert President de Gaulle’s stance into material advantage by improving their position in the Arab oil fields. And the Italian Government oil agency, E.N.I., which has long coveted access to Arab oil, now seems within sight of its goal. Talks between E.N.I. and the Iraqi Government have been going on since 1961, when Iraq announced the expropriation of about 99 percent of the Western consortium’s acreage. Now the Italian Government reportedly is dangling a $70-million low-interest loan in exchange for a development contract for E.N.I. American oilmen are resigned to seeing both the French and the Italians achieve some measure of success.

It appears certain that the companies will have to settle for a smaller share of the oil revenues. Three weeks after the cease-fire. Beirut’s authoritative Middle East Economic Survey noted that “Arab oil producing countries. to fulfill their role as financiers of the Arab world, will have to insure a steady increase in their oil revenues. not only in terms of over-all payments but also in terms of per-barrel payments.” Even if the situation quiets down, therefore, the outlook is for slimmer profits and more painful headaches in the oil business. And if large-scale fighting should break out once more. with the U.S. sympathetic to the Israelis, expulsion of American firms would he a real possibility, no matter how self-destructive that might be .

What’s good for Israel?

In spite of its importance, if our interest in the oil conflicted directly with our concern for Israel. we would probably regretfully have to watch the oil go down the drain. But our stake in both may well call for some shift in our position. A good case can be made that Israel, for reasons easy to understand, has been pursuing a course that is not in its own best long-term interests. It can further be argued that the U.S. has encouraged these unwise policies by failure to view the Middle East from a more dispassionate and balanced position. Thus the U.S. alienated the Arabs and was unable to dissuade Israel from action that may have made its existence all the more precarious. The shock waves from Israel’s victory are still sweeping across the Middle East. Ironically, U.S. officials say, they threaten most damage in the very lands that had been most tolerant toward Israel. The tiny Jewish state’s long-range security, moreover, may not truly be enhanced by boundary changes or declarations of an end to belligerency or even free passage through the Gulf of Aqaba. Ultimately, Israel can prosper only if its Arab neighbors can be reconciled to its presence.

In the long sweep of history the Arabs have a lot going for them. The Western world tends to view Israel even now as the underdog—a tiny Jewish David facing the Arab Goliath. This is true in terms of total populations (2,500,000 Israelis versus 110 million Arabs) and geographic area, but today the Israelis are almost a match for the Arabs in terms of citizens able to play a constructive role in modern society — those in good health, educated, skilled, and possessed of high morale. The Arabs are not likely to remain forever industrially backward. unable to employ the tools of destruction effectively. In spite of many mistakes and setbacks, a remarkable amount of progress has already been made in education in the past decade. By 1990, moreover, the Arabs are expected to number more than 200 million to Israel’s six million, at present rates of growth. If the tensions cannot be eased somehow, Israel one day will face overwhelming force. Even protected by nuclear weapons or foreign allies. it will then only be able to emulate Samson and destroy its enemies along with itself.

In spite of this prospect, there has been almost no progress toward defusing the explosive animosity. Israeli policy seems directed above all else at forcing the Arabs formally to admit defeat and, by implication, to accept as settled many issues still outstanding. But viewed in long-range terms, this reverses the logical order of events. First, the issues that divide the antagonists should be resolved; then a formal end to hostilities could follow almost as a matter of course. Arab leaders now find it impossible to acknowledge Israel under duress. And even if they can be forced to do so, their signatures on a peace treaty will never prevent further warfare while the basic causes of Arab hostility remain. After almost two decades of no progress toward reconciliation. Israelis and their American well-wishers should examine soberly the possibility that a change of strategy could bring better results.

A possible new approach

It is obviously far easier to criticize past policies than to formulate new ones. There are no dramatic new initiatives to propose, and no one can say with assurance that this or that program will work. But what might offer some hope is a new approach, one that focuses not on securing controversial and possibly unessential Israeli “rights” but on helping the Arabs regain their self-respect. Over the long run, this can be done only by the Arab countries themselves, by means of development that enables them to view themselves as the economic and political equals of Israel. For the shorter term, however, there are at least two offenses to Arab pride that could be eliminated: the unhealed sore of the refugees from the 1948 violence and the presence on Arab soil of conquering Israeli soldiers. By persuading the Israelis to take a generous attitude on these two issues, moreover, the U.S. could demonstrate its impartiality in a way that would strengthen the hand of its own embarrassed Arab friends· e.g., Hussein of Jordan, Faisal of Saudi Arabia. et. al.

The form and dimensions of the refugee problem may have been altered substantially by the outcome of the fighting. The Israeli forces overran, and now occupy, territory where about half of the refugees lived before the war started. It is impossible to predict how many will end up in Israeli occupied territory. An undetermined number fled to areas still in Arab hands and, although Israel has agreed to permit some of them to return, it is still unclear how liberal the Israeli Government will he about their repatriation. But it is certain that Israel has under its jurisdiction a large share of the refugees.

There has been speculation that Israel will now move to integrate them into the economic life of the captured lands. In this there may be some wishful thinking. For the west bank region of Jordan, although already developed to a considerable degree, was crowded before its occupation. It may be impossible to absorb all of the refugees there, and thus far Tel Aviv has shown no willingness to take them back into pre-war Israel. Signs of Arab resistance to Israeli rule in Old Jerusalem, moreover, cast doubt on the assumption that many Arabs will live willingly under the government of Israel. It is conceivable that events may prove to have diminished the refugee problem. On the other hand. it may turn out that the situation has only been complicated further. Certainly the way in which the Israeli-controlled refugees are treated could play a part in determining the future attitude of reasonable Arabs. And the U.S., by insisting on fair and considerate treatment, could help regain its position among these Arabs.

The “old” refugee problem

But there still remains the “old” refugee issue, which has been nagging the conscience of the world since 700,000 refugees fled Palestine when Israel was established. In nineteen years their numbers have swollen to 1,300,000 and they lived. before the latest fighting broke out, in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Gaza Strip. Some exist in the worst squalor; the luckiest occupy monotonous, crowded, hut relatively livable camps operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Even they are housed, clothed, fed, and inadequately educated on a daily allowance of 10 cents per person.

The U.S. contributes the lion’s share toward their subsistence; it has given $403 million of the $599 million donated to refugee care through last year. Private citizens recently formed a Near East Emergency Donations Committee (NEED) to channel additional corporate and individual donations to the agency in the current emergency. Periodically, U.S. officials have attempted to promote a settlement. Invariably, rebuffs from one side or the other have made us throw up our hands. Israel has attempted to use the refugees as bargaining counters in its campaign to force Arab recognition. The Arabs have seen them as their strongest claim on the decency of the West—their only good card in the propaganda game.

Israel has much to gain from elimination of the problem. Besides being pitiable, the refugees are extremely dangerous. From their ranks have come most of the commando-type raiders who periodically cross into Israel and stage terrorist attacks. It is their presence, as an organized, easily manipulated pressure group, that has kept Arabs of good will at the mercy of lowest-common-denominator politics. If, as Arab extremists suggest, Israel is to be turned into “another Vietnam,” it will be refugees who provide the guerrillas.

Working out a detailed plan will be difficult, the more so as such a plan may well face Arab attempts to sabotage it by pressure on the refugees. But it surely is not beyond human capability. Its provisions will presumably have to include acceptance by Israel of a sizable portion of the refugees as repatriates (although this requirement could perhaps be satisfied by continued occupancy of Israeli territory by the refugees now there), generous compensation for the others, invitations to many to resettle in the U.S. and other countries, and intensive training designed to make them attractive as human resources throughout the Arab world. If the plan is generous enough, and reasonable enough , it will he extremely difficult for the most intransigent Arab leaner to refuse it, standing up indefinitely to the combined pressure of world opinion, his own citizens, and the refugees themselves.

In the excitement of Israel’s overwhelming military success, it may be easier to persuade the Israelis to tackle the refugee problem than to give up the leverage of their territorial gains. But it might be well for the U.S. to encourage them to consider withdrawal—and without some of the prior conditions on which they now insist. It is by no means obvious; that the terms sought by Israel will really contribute to the future peace of the area and hence to its own ultimate interests. Such a withdrawal might seem a return to the conditions that brought on the fighting, and a pointless abandonment of hard-won fortified defense positions. But it could be argued that the Arab fortifications on the Syrian heights and the massed troops in the Sinai Desert were symptoms. not causes, of the hostility. Arab resentment of Israel’s presence—the basic cause of the fighting—has been intensified by Israeli occupation of Arab territory. Some diplomats believe that from its present position of strength, Israel could well afford to hand back some of the land, undercutting Arab charges that it is aggressive and expansionist.

U.S. officials argue that it is too early to expect the Israelis to mitigate their conditions. Internal political considerations make it difficult for Prime Minister Eshkol to do so at the moment. In 1956, American diplomats point out, even under the combined pressure of the U.S. and the Russians, Israeli troops remained four months in the Gaza Strip and at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba before withdrawing. Publicly, however, we have given no indication that we wish to see the Israelis withdraw except on their own original terms, which American officials concede would be dangerous for any Arab leader to accept. And if we have been active behind the scenes, no effects are visible.

Regional economic development

If, by whatever means, the immediate crisis can be clamped down and the attention of the Arabs directed away from revenge, the prospects for eventual development of the region are good. The impact of the war has, at least temporarily, revived the goal of unified effort and shown Arab leaders how badly they need to strengthen themselves. If ever a section of the globe cried out for regional development, it is the Middle East. Of the oil-rich countries, only Iraq has the resources to become a balanced agricultural-industrial state. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and Libya combined have about ten million residents, and almost all their land is desert. Yet their oil resources generate tremendous amounts of capital, most of which cannot be constructively employed within their own borders. So great are the returns from oil that the Middle East, given technical assistance and encouragement, could probably finance its own development with almost no foreign financial aid.

Kuwait has for six years shared some of its great oil wealth by way of loans and bank deposits totaling nearly $700 million. Some expanded version of the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, with other oil-producing countries joining in support, is probably the most promising vehicle for development. Dr. Taiba Yaffi, economist and general manager of Kuwait Investment Co., has worked out in some detail how such an inter-Arab fund could he financed and the large sums of money that it could provide for development. Under his proposal, all oil-producing countries would he obliged to contribute 5 percent of their oil revenues, to be matched by an equal contribution by the private foreign companies holding the oil concessions. If the organization were started this year on that principle, he says, it would immediately have $308 million at its disposal. By 1990, he estimates, it would have taken in $14 billion. Such amounts dwarf the $3.8 billion in American economic and military aid to the Arab countries over the last decade.

Consideration is also once more being given to the establishment of a Middle Eastern Development Bank. From the standpoint of the U.S., this would offer an opportunity to play a direct role in development of the region. Involvement in such a scheme at this time might be difficult to sell Congress, because it could commit the U.S. to large-scale support of programs devised in considerable degree by others. But it could help convince the Arabs that we are not determined to force an American solution to Middle Eastern economic problems.

Irrigation and electricity

Spending all the funds wisely, of course, would he any thing but automatic. Planners and developers can be hired, however, and patterns have already been set elsewhere. A notable example is the integrated regional-development program being carried out in Iran’s Khuzestan province by the Development & Resources Corp. of New York. Formed in 1955 by David Lilienthal and Gonion Clapp, two former Tennessee Valley Authority chairmen, the company has reclaimed 50,000 acres from the desert and plans eventually to turn an additional 200.000 acres into productive agricultural land. Farm output in the province has already increased two and a half times as a result of the large-scale irrigation and hydroelectric-dam systems. Development & Resources is carrying out fourteen other projects around the world. and its officials are more than willing to take on part of an Arab development program.

A dramatic possibility for development is the plan devised by Rear Admiral Lewis Strauss., former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and strongly supported by former President Eisenhower. It calls for the construction of three huge nuclear-powered plants to produce electricity and to convert seawater into fresh water. The water would then be used to irrigate thousands of acres of land that is now desert. Strauss estimates the cost of the project at around $1 billion and has proposed that the U.S. put up half of the initial $200-million capitalization.

By any standard, the U.S. has a huge stake in the tranquility of the Middle East. As a high-ranking State Department official puts it: “We can’t have another one of these wars every few years. It’s too costly and it’s too damned dangerous.” Among other things, this is probably the last war the Arabs and Israel can fight without employing fearfully destructive and sophisticated weapons. The escalation from 1956 is itself sobering.

The obstacles that confront the U.S. in its efforts to play a constructive role are admittedly greater than at any time since it moved onto the Middle Eastern stage, and it will take time to restore our exhausted credit with the Arabs. But the effort must he made. Our own safety is too intimately involved to write off the Arabs. And if we are not to write them off, our policy makers may well have to move visibly into a posture of more balanced friendship with both sides. The war, and our pro-Israeli stance, have cut the ground from beneath those Arabs who were our advocates. If they are to take a public position favorable to us again, we must give them something to rally around. It is equally true that the Arabs will have to respond positively. Our commitment to Israel’s existence is not negotiable.

From our own point of view, the beginning of wisdom is to understand that we are in serious trouble in the Arab lands, and that we cannot just wait patiently for them to get over their anger. If we make no moves, our adversaries could win the game by default.