Strategic ties again?

Much of the news from the Middle East over the past two weeks has been about the possibility of the United States and Israel coordinating their political and military activities in the area.

We are told that US Secretary of State George Shultz is in favor. His undersecretary, Lawrence Eagleburger, has just been to Israel, talking over possible details. Israel's new prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and new defense minister, Moshe Arens, are expected in Washington for more talks on the subject. US naval units are concentrating near Lebanon.

The Reagan people came to Washington in 1981 with the happy idea that they could bring about a ''strategic consensus'' in the Middle East on three legs - Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. If those three would work together with the US, then the Soviets could be kept out of the area and the oil would flow to the outside world, and peace would reign.

Nothing ever came of that broad idea for the simple reason that Saudi Arabia and Egypt could not collaborate with Israel and retain respectability in the Arab and Muslim communities. Nor could Israel find it easy to merge its interests in the same community with the richest (Saudi Arabia) and the most populous (Egypt) Arab states.

The decisive test came in the summer of 1981, when the Reagan administration agreed to put modern AWACS (advance warning and control system) planes at the disposal of Saudi Arabia.

Israel's then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin came to Washington on Sept. 10 for the decisive negotiation. In return for his agreement to allow the AWACS planes to go to Saudi Arabia, he was given ''strategic ties'' with the US.

Those ''ties'' were not spelled out publicly in full detail. There was a ''memo of understanding,'' still unpublished. It is known that it fell well short of what Mr. Begin wanted. One thing he wanted, and did not get, was an agreement to hold joint US-Israel ground maneuvers. Another Israeli desire was for the stockpiling of US military equipment in Israel.

But there was an agreement on ''strategic ties'' as a quid pro quo for Israel allowing Saudi Arabia to get the AWACS. And it lasted for three months.

On Dec. 14, 1981, Mr. Begin announced that he had annexed the Golan Heights. This shocked Washington. Secretary of State Alexander Haig expressed his ''regrets.'' Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger called the deed ''provocative'' and ''destabilizing.'' Four days later, on Dec. 18, the US formally and officially suspended the ''strategic ties'' on the ground that the annexation of the Golan Heights had violated ''the spirit'' of the accord, because it did not ''take into consideration'' the ''broad policy concerns'' of the US.

Relations between Israel and Washington were further strained in 1982 by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Following that, President Reagan, on Sept. 1, proposed a comprehensive peace plan, which Mr. Begin promptly denounced and rejected.

Now we are back again where once more special ''strategic ties'' between the US and Israel are on the agenda and being much discussed.

The Israeli government is again, as in 1981, wanting what is being described as ''higher-profile cooperation.'' This could mean actual joint military operations in the Middle East. It involves again the possibility of using Israeli bases to stockpile US weapons. It definitely seems to mean more outright grants and less money in loans in the mix in the pending US annual subsidy to Israel.

The project is being criticized in Israel by the opposition on the ground that Israel ''is not a hired gun.'' It is being opposed, as it was in 1981, in Washington by Secretary Weinberger and the Pentagon on the ground that the higher the profile of US collaboration with Israel, the harder it will be for the US to obtain cooperation in defense of the area from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other friendly Arabs.

Secretary Weinberger and the Pentagon won the argument in 1981. Will they win again in 1983?

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.