Why feelings run so deep in US-Israeli dispute

The bitterness in the latest row between Israel and the United States can be largely explained by its having touched some of the most sensitive chords in the relationship between the two countries.

The questions raised include:

* Can there be any formal defense or security treaty between the US and Israel without it limiting Israel's freedom of action in dealing with its Arab neighbors?

Any such limitation is anathema to most Israelis. The late David Ben-Gurion, founding prime minister of Israel, resisted it as much as present hard-line Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

* Can the US get involved in any such security agreement without seeming to defend Israel's conquests? Israel still has no internationally agreed borders and controls Arab territory captured in the 1967 war.

* How much freedom does the US have in pursuing US national interests in the Middle East without stirring up a hornet's nest in American domestic politics when Israel sees its own national interests threatened thereby?

* How far can a dispute between the US and Israeli governments be allowed to go without the risk of fueling anti-Semitism in American public opinion?

In the current dispute, Israeli feelings are all the deeper because these issues are being raised during the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Mr. Reagan had been perceived as the most pro-Israeli president to enter the White House since the establishment of the state of Israel. Israeli reaction smacks of Caesar's ''Et tu Brute'' as his old friend Brutus stabbed him.

The current row flared up when Israel, in effect, annexed the Syrian Golan Heights just over a week ago. The US showed its disapproval by first joining in a UN Security Council vote disapproving the Israel action, then suspending the US-Israeli strategic cooperation agreement signed Nov. 30.

Mr. Begin responded by calling in the US ambassador and, in unprecedentedly strong language, saying that Israel was in effect canceling the agreement. The prime minister said he would not let the US make Israel ''hostage'' to the agreement - implying his opposition to Washington's using a formal agreement with Israel to try to put a brake on Israeli initiatives.

The US response to Mr. Begin's strong language has been conciliatory. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. said on CBS television Dec. 20: ''The time has come now for the leadership in both countries to get to work to repair this damage.''

Mr. Haig added he expected Israel would ''live religiously'' by the Camp David accords, return the last segment of Sinai to Egypt on schedule in April, and continue as an ''active and cooperative'' participant with Egypt in the Palestinian autonomy talks.

In saying this, Mr. Haig was acknowledging the leverage Israel has in the present situation - and perhaps warning Mr. Begin at the same time not to use it. The US knows that it would face a far more dangerous threat to Middle East peace if Mr. Begin either reneged on the Sinai withdrawal or moved in the direction of annexing the West Bank and Gaza.

To head off either eventuality is probably the top US priority in dealing with the sensitive yet hard-nosed Mr. Begin. Hence the soft response which the Reagan administration is offering to the Israeli prime minister's invective.

The two governments had seemed on a collision course, however, even before the Golan annexation and the suspension or cancellation of the strategic cooperation agreement. Mr. Begin and his hard-line Cabinet colleagues - particularly Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon - have made no secret that their long-term aim is to annex the West Bank and Gaza.

And just as Mr. Begin is unlikely to abandon his plan to incorporate those Arab territories into the ''land of Israel,'' so is the Reagan administration unlikely to abandon its regional security blueprint for the Middle East and Gulf. As the Washington correspondent of the Jerusalem Post put it last month, ''Begin and his Cabinet, as the new US leadership sees it, are standing in the way of an emerging anti-Soviet strategic alliance in the Middle East.''

This conflict of national interests puts great strain on the Jewish American community. Their anxieties surfaced in the fall when the battle over the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia reached its peak of intensity.

Presumably now, as then, the Jewish American community will be going into high gear again in both Jerusalem and Washington to try to calm the troubled waters.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.