The Strategic Balance In The Mideast; Can the scales be tipped against Israel?

Most analysts agree that Israel enjoys an overwhelming military superiority over Arab states.

But there is growing concern in Israel that trends elsewhere inside and outside the region could wipe out its present advantage.

Some such statements from Israeli leaders sound frankly alarmist, in view of the decisiveness of the current Israeli advantage. But according to Dr. Nadav Safran of Harvard University, the acquisition of nuclear capability by an Arab country is at the top of the list of ''most dangerous developments.''

In descending order of degree of danger after that, Dr. Safran picked from a list of possible Arab scenarios:

* Radical change inside Egypt.

* A new and genuine reconciliation between Syria and Iraq.

* Equally dangerous, radical change inside Jordan.

* Renewed guerrilla activity from Jordan.

Faced with the same list (which did not originally include the nuclear scenario), an Arab analyst of strategic affairs, who preferred to remain anonymous, concurred almost exactly in his ranking of these four other developments as most potentially threatening to Israeli security ''as defined by Israel.''

Dr. Safran ranked his five listed scenarios in exactly reverse order of probability, i.e., with ''renewed guerrilla activity from Jordan'' ranked most probable -- though still with only a probability of 20 percent within the foreseeable future.

But significantly, the Arab analyst ranked his four listed scenarios in almost exactly the same order for probability as for degree of danger posed to Israel. That is, ''radical change inside Egypt'' was not only his most potentially dangerous scenario, but also his most likely, though he gave no precise estimate of degree of probability.

Such straw polls may seem on the surface quite facile. But Israel's present leaders seem committed to a forward policy of preemptive military strikes against any development that might at a later stage constitute a threat -- what Defense Minister Ariel Sharon has privately termed the ''safety valve'' theory. So perhaps it is useful for all concerned to guess just where he might strike next (see map).

Meanwhile, in the longer term, three other major trends are relevant when discussing the Middle Eastern strategic balance throughout the rest of the decade:

The ''technological gap.'' Has Israel's technological lead over the Arabs, which seemed close to disappearing in October 1973, lengthened or been further shortened since then? Can we foresee the Arabs overtaking Israel technologically sometime in the '80s?

The Arab analyst consulted was, from his point of view, pessimistic. One of the effects of the open-door economic policy pursued in Egypt since 1974 has been a heavier dependence on imports, he said. ''And this has frustrated technological development inside Egypt, which traditionally had the most developed technology in the Arab world.''

He saw no other Arab country, not even Iraq, stealing the technological laurels from Egypt. And he foresaw no significant reduction of Israel's technological lead throughout the decade.

Professor Safran largely agreed. He admitted the Arabs might have made progress in what he termed ''microtechnology'' over past years, but not in ''macrotechnology.''

''They might now come close to the Israelis in operating individual SAM (surface-to-air-missile) batteries or such, but Israel is far ahead in the development and operation of weaponry at the level of entire systems,'' he explained.

Could the Arabs, nevertheless, by deploying a few million petrodollars, leap over the technological gap, and procure their own nuclear capability? (This might match the capacity to produce and deploy atomic weapons which has existed in Israel for nearly two decades now.)

Again, the consensus among those questioned was ''No'' -- if for very different reasons. The Arab analyst said he could not foresee the Arabs having the infrastructure to support such a development ''within the foreseeable future.'' And Safran said he knew Israel would do all within its power to prevent its ever occurring -- as happened with the Israeli raid on the Iraqi nuclear installations last summer.

Superpower factors. Could changes in the relations of Middle Eastern powers with the two superpowers, or relations between the superpowers themselves, provide a fatal tip to the existing unstable equilibrium in the region?

The consensus of the experts, expressed with only slight hesitation, was that this is unlikly during the 1980s. Those consulted seemed agreed that US-Israeli relations will not reach breaking point during the decade, and that Soviet relations with Middle Eastern powers will probably not undergo radical change.

The greatest possible area for change -- barring domestic upheaval in Egypt -- would seem to be the possibility (however remote) that the present regime in Syria, or its successor, might tip Syria in the direction of the United States.

Islamic fundamentalism. The explosion of fundamentalist Islam in Iran has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in countries just west of there. And looking at the long-term trends, Maj. Robert Elliot of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) named the growth and possible arrival in power of the fundamentalists in a number of Arab countries as one of the most potentially destabilizing trends.

''If the fundamentalists come to power, they would require a number of years to consolidate their own regime, and Israel would be under less pressure during these years,'' Major Elliot said. ''But soon afterwards, such regimes would be under greater ideological pressure than ever to take military action against Israel.''

On balance, Major Elliot said, ''such instability is not in the West's interests, but Israel can probably ride it out.''

But where might this occur? He named Saudi Arabia as a prime candidate for Islamic upheaval, ''if once the fundamentalists win a foothold inside the royal family.''

Harvard's Dr. Safran put Saudi Arabia on his list of possible venues for the political victory of fundamentalism. Topping his list was Syria, then the Sudan, followed by Saudi Arabia and then Morocco or Egypt.

The Arab analyst also put Syria at the top of the list. But he followed it up with Algeria and Iraq, leaving Saudi Arabia off completely.

In other words, there is no consensus on where it might happen next, so new and startling is this phenomenon.

But Dr. Safran was not necessarily unhappy about the prospects. ''The coming to power of the fundamentalists would not necessarily pose any threat to Israel, '' he said. ''It would depend where it happened. If anything threatened the present setup in Saudi Arabia, the most threatened external party would not be Israel, but the US and the West in general. So Israel could leave the primary burden of response to the US, and perhaps even strengthen its alliance with the US by providing facilities for this response.

''In Syria, no government could really be worse, from the Israeli point of view, than the present one. . . .

''But in Egypt, a takeover by the fundamentalists would pose a real threat, because they would not turn to the Soviets in their campaign against Israel, so the US would consider the situation there 'salvageable,' '' Dr. Safran concluded gloomily.

All in all, the strategists of varying viewpoints offered a generally worrisome outlook for the West today -- in many ways, indeed, more worrisome for the US and its European allies than for Israel itself.

There seems, in sum, little hope that existing tensions in the Middle East can easily be eradicated. Removing the bitter thorn of the Israeli-Palestinian land dispute from the Middle Eastern body politic would do much to ease these tensions - but other substantial sources of instability would remain.

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