US-Israel defense accord fills gap in Mideast policy
The strategic cooperation agreement that the United States has just signed with Israel fits the pattern developing in the Reagan administration's broad Middle East policy.
It is a pattern based on bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel but not necessarily coordinated or agreed with those three countries.
As seen from this side of the Atlantic, the US-Israel agreement balances to some extent in Israel's favor the US sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia and the much-publicized Bright Star '82 military exercises with Egypt.
Until Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon cosigned with US Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger the US-Israeli ''memorandum of understanding'' in Washington Nov. 30, the Israeli government's attitude toward it had seemed somewhat cavalier. In the latter's eyes, the Reagan administration had been tilting all summer away from Israel and toward Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Sharon now calls the agreement ''a milestone'' in US-Israel relations. At first sight, the document does seem to be a pro-Israel zig after some pro-Egyptian and pro-Saudi zags in US Middle East policy. Already a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) spokesman in Beirut has called the accord a joint US-Israeli declaration of war against the Arabs.
Perusal of the published fine print of the agreement, however, suggests that the proposed US-Israeli cooperation will be qualified and may well fall short of what the Israelis had hoped for.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, now on the opposition benches in the Israeli parliament described it as ''meaningless'' and ''unnecessary.''
One can only assume that for Mr. Sharon - a hard-liner and tough bargainer - to have signed and praised the agreement, there may be more to it than meets the eye. Some press reports have already suggested a secret protocol whereby Israel will be given access to secret US information obtained from satellite surveillance over the Middle East.
The published text of the agreement specifically states that it is ''designed against the threat to peace and security of the region caused by the Soviet Union or Soviet-controlled forces from outside the region introduced into the region.''
It says further: ''The strategic cooperation between (the US and Israel) is not directed at any states within the region. It is intended solely for defensive purposes against the (Soviet) threat.''
Among areas of cooperation listed in the agreement are: joint military exercises, including naval and air exercises in the eastern Mediterranean; joint ''readiness activities,'' which presumably cover stockpiling US materials in Israel - but whether beyond the medical supplies once mooted is not stated; research and development; and ''cooperation in defense trade.''
There are two considerations bound to affect any deliberation on close or clearly defined US-Israeli security cooperation - and particularly any thought of a formal joint defense treaty between the two countries. One of these is longstanding, the other a more recent development since defense of the Gulf became a prime US strategic concern.
The longstanding consideration is that Israel remains a country whose borders have still to be definitively fixed and internationally recognized.
On the US side, there is a reluctance to give Israel a firm commitment of US support to defend frontiers unilaterally designated by Israel.
On the Israeli side, there is a caution about accepting US guarantees lest that acceptance inhibit Israel's freedom of action either to change borders in its favor or to mount punitive raids against Arab neighbors.
Some Israeli critics of the new agreement may already be wondering whether it gives the US another opening to put pressure on Israel - such as on the Palestinian question.
The consideration to emerge more recently is the role of Saudi Arabia in overall US strategic planning. That does not mean bowing always to the Saudis; but it does mean that Israel now finds itself with an effective rival in the Middle East for US interest and favor.