Clearing the air

One thing, it seems to me, stands out from the many things said and written in Israel and in Washington since the Israeli government startled Washington by passing a bill through the Knesset which in its effect annexed the Golan Heights to the State of Israel.

That one thing is that few if any persons in the Israeli government had the slightest idea that the government in Washington would react as strongly as it did.

Those members of the Israeli government who have spoken out on the subject say that they expected some reaction. They knew Washington would protest against this unilateral extension of Israeli law over a slice of territory which was captured from Syria during the 1967 war. But none of them seems to have expected that it would be more than a pro forma protest which would be forgotten as so many ealier American protests have been forgotten.

If Washington was startled by the original deed of annexation, the Israelis were even more startled by the resulting Reagan administration reaction - not a pro forma protest, but suspension of ''The Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation'' which the two governments had signed as recently as Nov. 30.

Israel expected to obtain two advantages from that memorandum. One would be the appearance of a new and closer military association between the United States and Israel. The other would have been American purchase of Israeli goods and services. This would have helped the Israeli economy.

The withdrawal of those two advantages recorded the first time that the Reagan administration has in fact applied a sanction to Israel. On previous occasions when Israeli actions were disapproved in Washington the only Reagan administration reaction was the pro forma protest. This was the first time since Ronald Reagan reached the White House that Washington actually touched both the economy and the military posture of Israel.

Why were the people in Israel surprised?

They were surprised because the Reagan people in Washington had until then failed to give Israel clear warning signals. On the contrary, the record of the Reagan administration had given Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin reason to think that so far as Washington was concerned he would not be opposed in his plans for the consolidation of Israel's control over virtually all of the Arab territories (except for the Sinai peninsula) overrun by Israel in the 1967 war and subsequently held under Israeli occupation.

In the early Reagan days the President himself entered no objection to more Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. He was quoted as having no objection to the annexation of East Jerusalem. His security council adviser, Richard Allen, applied the label of justified ''hot pursuit'' to Israeli troop incursions into Lebanon.

Hence, it seems to me that Mr. Begin was justified on the record in assuming that so long as Ronald Reagan was President of the United States he could proceed to interpret the Camp David formula as he chose. This would mean that he could annex the Golan Heights now, and the West Bank later after making minimum concessions to the idea of self-rule for the Arabs of the occupied territories.

In diplomacy one of the worst mistakes which can be made is to mislead another country as to future attitude. Some of history's worst tragedies resulted from one country not giving a clear warning signal to another. It is even possible that World War II might have been avoided had President Franklin Delano Roosevelt felt free to tell Adolph Hitler that America would fight for France and Britain. As it was, Hitler thought he could conquer all Europe without American interference.

The conclusion from the surprise between Washington and Israel and the hard words that have since been exchanged seems to me inescapable. The Reagan administration did not have a strategy for the Middle East and did not give the outside world clear signals about its future behavior toward the Middle East, until a lot of damage had been done.

The plain, central, essential fact is that Mr. Begin's desire to add ''Judea and Samaria'' to the land of Israel conflicts with the strategic and oil interests of the US in the Middle East. Had President Reagan been clear on this he would not have allowed Mr. Begin to proceed along the road of expansion without warning.

It is dangerous for people to come to Washington without knowledge of problems such as those in the Middle East.

The only consolation is that now, even if late in the day, the air has been cleared.

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