Is Israel just another wagon in Reagan's Mideast circle?
Jerusalem — For Israel which has always assumed it had a special relationship with its principal friend and arms supplier, the United States, these are troubling times.
Today the two nations appear to be on the outs as never before -- despite the fact that a highly conservative, anti-Soviet president is in Washington and a highly conservative, anti-Soviet prime minister is in Jerusalem.
Before he was elected, Ronald Reagan saw Israel as America's only trustworthy friend in the Middle East, considered Israeli settlements in occupied territory as not necessarily illegal under international law, and reaffirmed earlier US promises not to talk with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Though all signs are that Mr. Reagan still holds with these earlier views, there are persistent indications -- noted with alarm here in Israel -- that he is taking US foreign policy through a period of reappraisal and that Israel may be getting deemphasized as America's best friend in the region.
In the past year, the US has twice suspended arms deliveries to Israel, has overridden Israeli objections to weapons sales to Arab states, and has suspended a strategic cooperation agreement between the two countries. Letters seeking urgent clarification of US policy have flown frequently from capital to capital.
The latest strain between the two countries occurred this month, when an official traveling with US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger indicated that the United States was interested in selling F-16 fighter-bombers and antiaircraft missiles to Jordan. A Defense Department official said Washington was considering ''realigning'' Middle East alliances away from overwhelming, better-or-worse support for Israel.
Although President Reagan appeared to discount the possibility of such a move last week, Israeli officials say Mr. Begin is still very worried about the drift in relations between the two states. Mr. Begin currently is trying to organize a multiparty delegation from Israel to go to Washington to explain Israeli opposition to US weapons sales to countries which do not have a peace treaty with Israel. So far, the Labor Party has objected to the proposed misson.
The litany of problems Washington has had with Tel Aviv is familiar to many by now: Israel's near war with Syria last spring; its heavy military engagement with Lebanese-based Palestinian guerrillas last summer; the bombing raids on Baghdad and Beirut; and the virtual annexation of the Golan Heights in December. At least one Israeli specialist admits these Israeli acts did cause a ''public relations'' problem for Israel. But he adds: ''In the real world they were necessary and not really so damaging.''
The problem in Israel-US relations, the specialist contends, has developed instead because of Mr. Reagan's highly anti-Soviet world view, which hearkens back to the 1950s approach of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and seeks ''containment'' and even ''rollback'' of communism in the world.
According to this official, who prefered to remain anonymous: ''Ronald Reagan sees the Middle East as a theater of diplomatic operations in this regard. He is seeking to draw together the ''moderate'' Arabs and Israel into an overall regional strategy.
''It's a wagon train mentality. The Reagan administration is drawing the wagons into a circle. And in order to get Saudi Arabia and other moderates into the circle, a pattern has developed where the US must pressure Israel. In addition, this view also makes Israel just another wagon in the circle.''
If this is so, he is asked, has not Israel been partially to blame by continually warning Washington of Soviet influence in the region?
''There is indeed Soviet influence in the Middle East,'' he responds. ''Israel serves to help check that influence.''
But the US foreign policy establishment, he contends, has been moving in this direction since the late 1970s. Mr. Reagan's particular emphasis on countering the Soviets simply accelerated a trend which began with Egypt breaking its alliance with Moscow and reached a peak of urgency when the Shah was forced out of Iran in 1979.
''US strategy has been to forge a new 'constellation' of allies in the Mideast against the Soviets,'' the Israeli says. ''But the problem with this is that the price the US must pay to the so-called 'moderates' is excessive and yields a highly inadequate return.''
Moreover, he adds, by ''leaning on Israel'' the US has elicited from Begin a ''counter-price in Beirut, Baghdad, and the Golan.''
This Israeli specialist feels the tenor of US-Israeli relations has indeed changed and now is more antagonistic. But he cautions that there are extensive links that cannot be broken, despite the present disagreements.