US has received benefits, but is also paying a price, for its tilt toward Israel

In 1981, the Reagan administration engaged in a bruising political battle to win congressional support for the sale of sophisticated AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. The battle was won, but only over the opposition of Israel and its domestic allies. This year, partly in deference to Israel, the administration may scale back plans to sell new arms to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, two Arab countries of clear strategic importance to the United States.

One thing that has changed in six years is the administration's attitude toward Israel. Today Israel is viewed by many in the White House and at the State Department as America's only reliable friend in the troubled Middle East.

But Israeli arms shipments to Iran and allegations of Israeli arms shipments to Nicaragua's antigovernment rebels have raised new questions about the US-Israeli relationship.

Under recent Presidents the US has sought a degree of evenhandedness in its Mideast policies. It has tried to reconcile many Americans' natural affinity for Israel, based on shared political and religious values, with the interests of moderate Arab states.

But balancing US interests in the Middle East has been a difficult, often thankless task for Washington policymakers. Some observers believe that the Reagan administration has wearied of the effort.

Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon put a strain on its relations with the US that alarmed leaders in both governments. Since then, the US and Israel have grown closer than ever before. The Reagan administration has backed Israel with more aid, more arms, and closer political ties.

Experts say the warming trend in US-Israeli relations owes much to President Reagan's views. As a candidate for president in 1980, Mr. Reagan argued that Israel had a ``moral'' right to ``Judea and Samaria,'' Israel's biblical designation for the territories it occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The stance, which effectively denied Arab claims to the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, was partly designed to woo traditionally Democratic Jewish voters away from Jimmy Carter. But experts say it also reflected a fondness for Israel's pro-democratic, antiterrorist, and anticommunist policies.

Another factor has been a change of views on the part of Secretary of State George Shultz, following dramatic developments in 1983.

In that year Syria undermined a US-brokered agreement ending Israel's occupation of Lebanon. And twin terrorist attacks against the US Embassy in Lebanon and the US Marine peacekeeping contingent killed 258 Americans.

Analysts say the events weakened the influence of Arabists in the State Department who for years had linked US interests in the region to resolving the issue of the occupied territories.

``Shultz initially followed the advice of the Arabists in the department, but the results were catastrophic,'' says Avner Yaniv, a visiting Israeli professor of government at Georgetown University.

The result was that Mr. Shultz, who initially aroused concern among many American and Israeli Jews because of his previous business connections with Arab states, has become the most openly pro-Israeli secretary of state in history.

Praise for Israel here is qualified by concern over recent Israeli actions, including the Lebanon invasion and Israel's 1985 raid on a Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunis. State Department officials also worry that Israel may be diverting some US aid to establish permanent settlements on the West Bank.

Still, Israel is widely regarded in Washington as a generally reliable friend. Moreover, many in Congress and the Reagan administration are said to feel that, after they exerted themselves in the past to win congressional approval of arms sales to various Arab states, the payoff for the US has been minimal in terms of advancing Middle East peace prospects.

Also, traditional pro-Israeli feelings among the US public have been reinforced by recent outbreaks of terrorism sponsored by various Arab groups in the Middle East.

For all these reasons, under the Reagan administration US policy toward Israel has been transformed:

Diplomatic efforts to bring Israel and its Arab neighbors to the bargaining table - efforts central to the policy of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations - have been relegated to a lower priority.

US aid levels have soared, with Israel now enjoying unique preferential terms.

Israel has been upgraded to the status of a non-NATO ally, a formal designation that expands on moves toward closer strategic cooperation between the two nations begun in 1983.

US officials insist that the close ties reflect Israel's increasing importance in defending Western interests in the strategically important but unstable Middle East.

Israel's battle-tested armed forces are considered an important deterrent to direct Soviet aggression in the region. Also, by serving as a storage depot for US weapons and fuel, Israel could help facilitate the rapid movement of US troops to crisis spots in the Persian Gulf and on NATO's southern flank.

In addition, Israeli intelligence has been essential to monitoring Soviet moves in the Middle East and tracking the activities of key adversaries like Syria and Iran. A recent New York Times report says it was Israeli intelligence that enabled US warplanes to target Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in a raid on Tripoli last April.

But critics of current US policy say that the administration has tilted too far, with the result, they charge, that Israel has become more a liability than an asset to the US in the Middle East.

The critics contend that devotion to Israel in the executive branch and Congress has weakened the US role as honest broker between Arab and Israeli interests, while giving Israel, in effect, a veto power over US arms sales to moderate Arab countries whose backing is needed to sustain the Middle East peace process.

Because the US has appeared even more partial to Israel, critics say, public support for the US in the Arab world has weakened. This in turn has nourished an environment that has spawned numerous acts of anti-US terrorism.

Critics also object that the US-Israeli alliance has come at an emormous financial cost. At a time when its domestic budgets are being pared, the US provides Israel with increasing amounts of foreign aid. This year the US will furnish more than $3 billion to Israel, much of it as grants that Israel will not need to repay.

But the US may be paying an even higher cost in lost international prestige as a result of the Iran-contra affair - an imbroglio that the US apparently stumbled into with some Israeli cooperation.

Evidence obtained by the Senate Intelligence Committee points to a possible Israeli role in deciding to sell US arms to Iran. A recent committee report also said Israeli officials may have encouraged or even suggested the diversion of arms-sale profits to the Nicaraguan contras. Israel has denied the allegations.

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