President Reagan and Israel

A HEADLINE in the Washington Post caught the attention of many readers the other morning. It read: ``Israel's New Super-Lobby in Washington: Reagan and Co.'' This picture of the growing tie between Israel and the Reagan administration did not come from Arabs or other critics. Instead, it was penned by Richard B. Straus, editor of the Middle East Policy Survey and previously a staff member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby.

Mr. Straus's treatise is worth chronicling in some detail.

It comes at a time when questions are being asked as to whether US policy toward Israel isn't contributing heavily to the Mideast-connected terrorism now being directed toward the United States.

Straus attributes this strong US-Israel link to a ``revolution'' in relations between the two countries that began in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. ``Even the President's harshest critics in the liberal Jewish community,'' Straus writes, ``acknowledge he is the most viscerally pro-Israel president since the founding of the state.''

The year 1980, Straus points out, ``also marked the beginning of the end of the Arabs' oil clout.'' In past years, ``the threat of the Arab oil weapon had offset the traditional ties between the US and Israel. Once the oil weapon was unleashed in 1973, it served as a counterweight insuring that Arab needs and interests would be addressed in Washington.''

Straus portrays an AIPAC lobby that now sees the US-Israeli relationship as having become a deep, broad-based partnership -- one that is progressing toward a full-fledged diplomatic and military alliance.

Straus also describes what he sees as a transformation in Secretary of State George Shultz, who came into his job with the view that American interests in the region required Israel to come to terms with Palestinian nationalism and ultimately make major territorial concessions in the West Bank.

Shultz, as Straus sees it, became disillusioned with the Arabs when he came to believe that it was they -- not Israel -- who caused the collapse of US efforts to get anywhere with its September 1982 Mideast peace initiative and who blocked his effort to resolve the war in Lebanon.

At this time, as Straus describes it, Shultz began to shift toward Israel -- moving to the pro-Israel position that Mr. Reagan had always maintained.

Terrorism, according to Straus, shaped a climate in which the new pro-Israel attitude grew among both the American public and US officials. He writes of the ``aura they [the Israelis] projected -- like at Entebbe -- as men of action. This macho image not only appealed to the American public, but also influenced top US officials like the President, the Secretary of State, and CIA Director William Casey.''

The Straus thesis is fascinating and persuasive in one area: It seems clear that AIPAC feels that a strong US-Israel partnership has been shaped -- one that is progressing toward the point where the US, and the President, can be counted on as a diplomatic and military ally.

But here some questions can be asked about whether this is in fact the perception of the President and of his officials in high circles.

It is true that the President is a very good friend of Israel's. But he was a firm supporter as well as an advocate of the 1982 Mideast peace initiative -- which would have set up some kind of Palestinian entity within the framework of Jordan. And he blamed Israel as well as the Arab countries for its failure. He firmly guarantees Israel's existence as a state. But he is said to still believe that the Palestinian question has to be resolved, including concessions by Israel.

The secretary of state was feared by many within the Jewish community and by top officials in Israel when he first took office for what they thought would be a ``tilt'' toward the Arab countries. If that tilt was ever there, it certainly is no more. But the secretary of state still holds to the view that there must be a Palestinian solution. His position is one of trying to be fair to both sides in the Mideast -- one from which he would feel he has never changed.

But the suggestion from Straus that there is a ``revolution'' in US-Israeli relations is most interesting, as are his observations pertaining to its implications, which are ``at this point,'' he writes, ``difficult to assess: Will it enhance Israeli security over the long run? Will it encourage Arab moderation and recognition of Israel? Or will it instead inflame radical sentiment in the Middle East?''

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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