The Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor should have jolted the US government into an overdue reassessment to clarify its relations with Israel. It did not. While the US "condemned" the attack and voted for the UN resolution , the President and our UN ambassador stressed that it would involve no change in those relations. An Israeli official said that "Reagan gave us the feeling that the vote was pro forma."
In practical terms does this mean that Israel can continue to count on virtually total US support -- at the expense of important US interests in the Middle East?
The US has long supported Israel security on the basis of history, sentiment, and general principles. For several decades other interests in the Middle East were limited and not critical. No longer is that the case. Now, the US and its closest allies have vital interests in access to Middle East oil, in stable peace and orderly change, in cooperation with the Arab states, and in minimizing Soviet influence and options.
Israeli interests, as defined by Mr. Begin, and his policies and actions are a direct threat to those vital interests. He claims biblical title to the occupied West Bank and Gaza containing over a million Palestinians and adamantly refuses to recognize their right to determine their own future. He has cynically distorted the import of the Camp David accords, the expanded Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. In the name of security, he has devastated much of Lebanon, provoked the Syrian missile crisis, and now bombed the Iraq reactor. Begin's actions, and our acquiescence, have created tensions between the US and the Arabs, weakened the moderate Arabs, and their incentives to work with us, raised the risks of upheaval in the region, and enhanced Soviet opportunities.
In reality, the Begin policy does not serve Israel's genuine interests either. His predecessors sought acceptance of Israel by its Arab neighbors within its earlier borders. Since Sadat's initiative, such a settlement may well be within reach. Not only Egypt but also Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Arafat's PLO appear prepared to settle the longstanding Arab-Israeli dispute by accepting Israel within its 1967 borders, in return for its withdrawal for the occupied territories and recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination, with safeguards for Israel's security. It is even possible that Syria and Iraq could be led to acquiesce in such a solution.
Begin's policy, if continued, will sacrifice this chance for peace and security. Eventually it will convince the moderate Arab states that it is futile to seek the settle with an expansionist Israel which asserts the unilateral right to take aggressive actions for its security as it defines it. And it is forfeiting the widespread goodwill and support which Israel enjoyed from many states around the world. Thus Begin's course will be disastrous for Israel itself. Faced with the far greater Arab population and resources, Israel cannot hope to assure its security indefinitely by threats and force. Its security ultimately depends on reconciliation with the Arabs.
For Israel, and all other nations concerned with the Middle East, the election about to take place is fateful in its possible consequences. If Israel's voters weighed its long term interests, they would surely voted Mr. Begin out of office. Yet according to the polls, his prospects of winning another term are good. Apparently his truculence and chauvinism are appealing to the nationalism of large sections of the Israeli electorate.
And if Mr. Reagan were more concerned with protecting US and Western interests, he would do nothing which could enhance Begin's prospects. Yet in fact, Begin has benefitted substantially from Mr. Reagan's reassurances in the face of Mr. Begin's provocative and unilateral actions. They reinforce the notion that such an Israeli course has no costs: that the US will continue to provide the backing and military and economic assistance of $2.2 billion a year which is essential for Israel's survival, and still allow Israel a free hand to acts as it sees fit, with only "pro forma" rebukes despite serious damage to basic US interests.
No doubt the influence of the Israeli lobby, which has repeatedly shown its power over Congress and the executive branch, explains Reagan's behavior in part. But many American Jews, who take a longer view of Israel's interests, are deeply disturbed by the consequence of Begin's policies. And many other Americans, who favor US support for Israel's legitimate security, are angered by the abject failure of our government to assert the US interests in the Middle East. A president who did take a more courageous stand would probably find to his surprise that hi s course was not only right but popular.