The 1982 Reagan Plan

What was the 1982 Reagan Plan?

Ronald Reagan was the first President to see Israel as a valuable ally in the Cold War. Reagan once wrote:

  • Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow’s designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being.

The Israelis cultivated Washington’s perception of their capability to deter the Soviet Union, while the Arab states refused to join the “strategic consensus” that Alexander Haig tried to create to oppose Soviet expansionism in the region. By mid-1982, Reagan Administration attempts to align Arab Middle Eastern states with the US and blunt potential Soviet moves in the region were faltering. The Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave the ideas some credibility, but Arab leaders were not motivated to respond to the American initiatives. Arab Governments were reluctant to become identified with American political objectives, but there was progress toward military cooperation since this directly benefited the Arab states.

The series of clashes along the Israel-Lebanon border, followed by Israels invasion of Lebanon in June of 1982, turned the attention of the Reagan Administration toward the Israel-Arab conflict. In June 1982 the Secretary of State, Alexander Haig — a leading advocate of close relations with Israel — resigned. The stage was thereby set for an experiment by a section in the State Department, supported by the incoming Secretary of State, George Shultz, and the National Security Adviser, William Clark that favored a pro-Arab tilt and a top priority effort to find a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Influenced by the State Department’s Bureau of East Affairs, under the leadership of Assistant Secretary of State Veliotes, they argued that there was a major opportunity for a breakthrough to peace. Jordan was believed ready to enter negotiations, possibly with the permission or, they hoped, even with the PLO‘s participation. Ambassador Philip Habib assured Shultz that Syria was ready to negotiate its withdrawal from Lebanon. Unfortunately for peace, all these assertions were proved erroneous during 1983.

The Reagan plan approach grew out of the belief that the US must show progress towards solving the Arab-Israeli issue — or, at least, make energetic attempts in that direction — to retain US influence in the Arab world. The policy was meant to show the Arabs that America was trying to respond to their grievances. There was also an important domestic political component or Reagan. In a speech delivered on September 1, 1982 President Reagan outlined a proposed solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict. He labelled his position as the “next step” in the process that was begun with the Camp David Accords to pave the way for autonomy for the Palestinian people. He spoke of “”the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements.” He proposed a five-year transition period for “the peaceful and orderly transfer of domestic authority from Israel to the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza” and a freeze on new Israeli settlements during that time. Self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza would be in association with Jordan and not a separate state. Jerusalem would remain undivided, its final status to be decided through negotiations.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the PLO’s Arafat had been consulted in preparation of the plan, but Israel had not been notified by the Reagan Administration until right before the speech. In fact, the American Secretary of State had met with Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban a few days before and concealed the imminent announcement from him.

Although Labor leader Peres expressed support for the plan, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the Likud opposed it. Begin reacted very negatively, calling the plan “national suicide for Israel”. In September Begin wrote to Ronald Reagan:

  • What some call the ‘West Bank,’ Mr. President, is Judea and Samaria, and this simple historic truth will never change. There are cynics who deride history. They may continue their derision as they wish, but I will stand by the truth. And the truth is that millennia ago there was a Jewish Kingdom of Judea and Samaria where our kings knelt to God, where our prophets brought forth the vision of eternal peace, where we developed a rather rich civilization which we took with us in our hearts and in our minds, on our long global trek for over 18 centuries; and, with it, we came back home.
  • By aggressive war, by invasion, King Abdullah conquered parts of Judea and Samaria in 1948; and in a war of most legitimate self-defense in 1967, after being attacked by King Hussein, we liberated, with God’s help, that portion of our homeland.
  • Geography and history have ordained that Judea and Samaria be mountainous country and that two-thirds of our population dwell in the coastal plain dominated by those mountains. From them you can hit every city, every town, each township and village and, last but not least, our principal airport in the plain below.
  • Mr. President, you and I chose for the last two years to call our countries ‘friends and allies.’ Such being the case, a friend does not weaken a friend, an ally does not put his ally in jeopardy. This would be the inevitable consequence were the ‘positions’ [Begin refers here to the Reagan Plan which called on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines] transmitted to me on August 31, 1982, to become reality. I believe they won’t.
  • ‘For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.'(Isaiah 62).

The Reagan Plan was finally rejected by Jordan and the PLO in April 1983 — a development that discouraged Washington about prospects for settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the reliability of Arab “moderates”. Consequently, the US-Israel alliance was strengthened, recovering from the blows it had suffered during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and Syria was again identified as the prime obstacle to regional stability.

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