Israeli anxiety, even panic. Call it what you will, Israel's nervousness is the leading preoccupation of a number of Washington's foreign-policy makers.
In the view of some State Department officials, the Israelis are feeling so isolated and vulnerable these days that they could end up launching a new invasion of southern Lebanon over the next few months. It would be a bigger attack than ever before, US officials fear, and could easily explode into an Israeli-Syrian war.
The problem, as seen from the State Department, is a need to calm down the Israelis through new forms of aid and cooperation, while not going so far as to cause anxiety and mistrust among the so-called moderate Arab nations. Much will depend on the outcome of the expected visit to Washington on Nov. 29 of Israel's Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
Matters were so uncertain as of this writing on Nov. 25 that no one could confirm whether General Sharon would indeed come to the US or not.
American slowness in responding to Israeli requests for greater military cooperation between the two nations is not surprising. Defense officials, who have taken the lead until now at least in dealing with this matter, are reported to be reluctant to expand military ties with the Israelis. These officials, and some of the senior military advisers who work with them, see the Arab nations, and not Israel, as the key to the defense of the West's oil supplies.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., on the other hand, has been more sensitive to Israeli anxieties. He is reported to feel that unless the United States bolsters Israeli confidence with new forms of military cooperation, the Israelis are capable of engaging in irrational actions which would set back American interests in the Middle East for years to come. Lebanon, as Mr. Haig sees it, is the world's top trouble spot.
General Sharon, meanwhile, is reported to be arguing privately that if the Americans want to tie the Israelis' hands in Lebanon, the best way to do so would be to tighten US military ties with Israel and to form a virtual alliance. Sharon is asking among other things for the use of uncensored US satellite photographs, the stockpiling of US tanks and ammunition in Israel, and joint US-Israeli military maneuvers not only in the air and on the sea but also on the ground.
But a reluctant US Defense Department appeared ready, until recently at least , to go along only with some contingency planning, with joint naval maneuvers, and with the prepositioning of US medical supplies in Israel. It may take prodding from the White House for the Pentagon to go farther.
The Israelis have been pointing to a Palestinian military buildup in southern Lebanon as evidence of their vulnerability. But some State Department officials think that the buildup is of less alarming proportions than the Israelis would have it. What US officials seem to agree on is that the sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia, the death of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, the warmth which some top American officials have shown toward the Saudi peace plan, and other factors have contributed to nearly unprecedented Israeli anxiety.
Some officials think that Israel would never have reacted so strongly against West European participation in a Sinai peacekeeping force were it not for this anxiety.