Israel, the US, and the high cost of miscalculations

ISRAEL'S special relationship with the United States is threatened not so much by the recent sequence of events - Irangate and the Pollard affair - as by its short-sighted view of US interests in the Middle East. The issue is not just the immediate future of bilateral relations between Washington and Jerusalem. At stake is the standing of the US in a region where it has much broader, long-term objectives and needs.

Every time Washington is tainted by involvement with Jerusalem, Israel jeopardizes both America's role of honest broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict and US global strategy on oil, the containment of Soviet expansionism, and relations with the developing world. Israel's current course, therefore, is arguably self-destructive. Israel hurts itself by damaging US interests because it endangers the economic and political well-being of an ally on which it is so dependent for its survival.

For example, the plot to trade arms with Iran for US hostages has enraged oil-rich allies in the Arab world. Some feel betrayed by the duplicity of an administration which sells weapons to an enemy at Israel's suggestion - while refusing to meet their requests for US military hardware because of Israeli objections.

The Pollard affair deepens the crisis of credibility. Much of the classified information Pollard supplied was reportedly about Arab states, significantly about US friends such as Tunisia as well as its enemies, notably Libya. Pollard's espionage is portrayed by the Israeli government as a rogue operation. Yet it has to be seen in the context of a series of Israeli actions in the 1980s which have harmed US interests in the Middle East and endangered American lives.

Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon drew US troops into the region with disastrous consequences. Diplomatically, the US negotiated Israel's withdrawal from that country - only to see the agreement founder, primarily on Israel's refusal to adhere to a timetable.

Israel's imprisonment of Lebanese nationals, and their transfer to Israeli jails in defiance of the Geneva convention and US condemnation, led ultimately to the 1985 TWA hijacking during which 39 Americans were held hostage for 17 days.

Israel's detention of Palestinians was reportedly the motive for the abduction of three American professors in Beirut earlier this year.

The Israelis have also repeatedly blocked US arms sales to pro-Western Arab states, significantly Saudi Arabia, whose primary security concerns are Soviet expansionism since the 1979 Afghanistan invasion and Iranian advances in the Gulf war - not Israel.

In each case, the United States paid a price for Israeli policy and Israel's actions have an accumulative effect. They have served to make Washington appear increasingly isolated from the Arab world. They have obliged some, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, to rethink relations.

Whether by accident or intent, Israeli foreign policy is driving a wedge between the US and the Arabs. The net effect can serve the purpose only of those Israelis who wish to make the US dependent on Israel in the region.

Virtually no one in the Western world questions Israel's claim to a unique relationship with Washington - in the past, the present, or future. Unfortunately, the recent scandals have not awakened Israel to the US's basic need for relations beyond those with Jerusalem.

Israel's blinkered thinking has been reflected by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. At the height of the Iran crisis, he suggested the United States pursue contact with Tehran not for any valid geostrategic reason but rather to obtain the release of US hostages.

And Mr. Shamir has adamantly opposed the idea of an unbridled Israeli inquiry into the Pollard scandal. He seems to ingore the almost inevitable backlash.

In the context of events during the 1980s, an official Israeli investigation into the Pollard affair or a full account of the country's role in the Iran scandal will not be enough. Nor will token gestures such as yesterday's resigination of Col. Aviem Sella, the Israeli Air Force officer who is accused of being Pollard's spymaster, suffice. Those Jewish-American leaders who visited Jerusalem this month to urge full and frank disclosure on both counts should look beyond such short-term solutions to Israel's long-term need for a fresh start. Israel must instead conduct a reassessment of its relationship with Washington. For the alliance to be of long-term value to both, the US has to enjoy credibility with the Arab world and the freedom of diplomatic maneuvering.

A new, less self-serving approach would be in Israel's long-term interests. Only an administration independent of Jerusalem will be capable of effective mediation between Arab and Jew. Only when the US is perceived to be evenhanded can Israel hope for progress on its global concerns - for example, Soviet Jewry.

The US record over nearly four decades should prove that it does not intend to abandon Israel. Indeed, history suggests that Irangate and the Pollard affair will be viewed as temporary hiccups in the geostrategic partnership that ties Washington to Jerusalem.

Certainly recent events show that the initiative rests not so much with the US, constrained as it is by the Israeli lobby and the need for a powerful regional ally, but rather with the government in Jerusalem.

The challenge to Israel, therefore, is to adopt a more mature and more confident approach to the special relationship - and to recognize the responsibility that goes with it.

David Smith, a British correspondent recently based in Israel, is a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. His book on Israel will be published this year.

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