The Jerusalem Post, February 25, 2004

THE ROGERS PLAN IS STILL WITH US

By Yossi Ben-Aharon

In March 1969 the Nixon administration had barely begun its term when ambassador Yitzhak Rabin was called in for an important meeting with secretary of state William Rogers. Accompanying Rabin were his deputy, the late Shlomo Argov, and myself.

What transpired in that meeting may be considered ancient history. However, two issues that were raised then have remained vitally relevant to this day.

Rogers summoned Rabin to outline the main contours of a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israel conflict that soon became known as the Rogers Plan. The goal was to have Israel withdraw to the pre-June 1967 armistice lines in return for peace. Rogers and assistant secretary of state Joseph Sisco made their presentations. Rabin was dumbfounded. Argov's face turned red as Sisco read from a top secret -- "nodis" (no distribution) paper. I took notes, trying hard not to miss one word.

"The territorial issue is the crux of the matter," Sisco intoned. As for the nature of peace, "the US believes that the type of relations existing between neighboring states that have long lived in peace is unattainable in the Middle East at this stage in history."

Argov exploded: "And for this 'unattainable' peace you want us to withdraw to lines which are indefensible?" he asked.

Rabin pressed on: "You are destroying the chances of achieving an agreement via direct negotiations. Maybe we can get a better deal through a direct give-and-take process with the Arabs." Our arguments fell on deaf ears.

SUBSEQUENTLY the Americans confided their position on borders to the Soviets, then to the Arabs. Sure enough, the Arabs soon adopted the position that a total withdrawal to the previous armistice lines was not negotiable. Later, it turned out to be one of the main causes for the stalemate in the talks with Syria and with the Palestinians.

Our heated exchanges with the Rogers team next turned to the strategic dimension. Again, Argov led the discussion: "What Israel do you want to see in the Middle East?" he asked the secretary.

"An Israel that lives in peace and normal relations with its neighbors" responded Rogers.

"In that case, you are doing the exact opposite of what you say you want to achieve," Argov retorted. "Your focus on territory will only promote friction and war, not peace nor normal relations. The Arabs will interpret your stance as an invitation to press for more concessions, until they push us with our backs to the wall.

"And if we are pushed to the wall we will respond until no target in the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf, will be beyond our reach."

Argov was intimating, of course, that in an all-out confrontation in which its existence might be threatened Israel would not hesitate to hit the Gulf oil fields. Still our arguments fell on deaf ears. Thirty-five years later we are struggling with the same basic and vital issues. Neither the lesson of the Yom Kippur War, nor the rise of PLO and Islamic terrorism have brought about an American reappraisal of its policy, or of its perception of Israel's role in the region and its impact on an Arab-Israel settlement.

Successive American administrations have persistently adhered to a settlement formula -- regardless of the name given it -- which focuses on territory and disregards the long-term consequences of a weakened Israel. A strategically emasculated Israel invites further Arab attempts on its existence.

A convergence of American and Israeli interests can contribute immensely to regional stability. But it will not become a reality until Washington finally turns its back on the Rogers Plan and on the entire approach that gave birth to it.

The writer is a former director general of the Prime Minister's Office under Yitzhak Shamir.