UNLIKE the United States, Israel's role in the sale of arms to Iran did not represent a major departure from foreign policy. Indeed, for domestic, regional, and international reasons, Israel actually seeks to bolster the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It should come as no surprise if US investigations uncover even deeper Israeli involvement. Both Israeli government officials and arms dealers claim altruistic motives, saying their prime concern was winning freedom for US hostages. But Israel clearly has a separate agenda for pursuing relations with Iran.
Domestically, Israel has three of its own hostages to consider. Earlier this year two soldiers were kidnapped by pro-Iranian gunmen in Lebanon. Two months ago the same group captured an Israeli fighter pilot, shot down over Lebanon during an Israeli raid on guerrilla bases.
Israel has sought to exploit its role in the ``arms-for-hostages'' swap both to bring home its own men as well as to cultivate an Iranian link to end Shiite extremist attacks on its forces still in a South Lebanon enclave. Long before the stunning US policy shift, Israel recognized that Iran was the only force with sufficient clout over Lebanese fanatics.
Israel also has longstanding cultural and social connections. An estimated 30,000 Jews still live in Iran. Their safety is a major concern within the sizable Iranian-Jewish community in Israel, which has become a power bloc since Sephardic or Oriental Jews became the majority in the 1970s.
Regionally, Israel has looked to the Persians, who have been rivals of the Arabs for centuries, to counterbalance the threat the Jewish state has lived with since 1948. Under the Shah, Iran was Israel's most important ally in the Muslim world, providing oil in return for military hardware and Israeli expertise. Intelligence links between Israel's Mossad and the Shah's secret police, Savak, were especially strong. After the revolution, successive Israeli governments maintained ties with the theocracy for a mix of reasons, including arms sales.
As early as 1981 Ariel Sharon, then defense minister, defended Israeli arms shipments to Tehran for the same reasons the US administration has cited in recent weeks. Israel, he said, sought an inroad to Iran and a link to Khomeini's potential successors.
Behind-the-scenes relations with Iran are also a way to remove Iraq from the front lines of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Successive Israeli governments have only partially succeeded at neutralizing Baghdad during various spectacular operations, including the 1981 air strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor.
So Israel has applied the old adage ``The enemy of my enemy is my friend,'' creating a quiet alliance to destabilize a mutual Arab foe at a time the Gulf war dominated thinking in the region.
In the regional peace process, the Israelis believed their covert support for Iran would indirectly serve to pressure Jordan's King Hussein. With his ally Iraq bogged down in the war, his alliance with the Palestine Liberation Organization collapsed, and Egypt ostracized, the Jordanian monarch is exposed and relatively isolated. Israel now has greater flexibility in manipulating the terms for a settlement of the Palestinian problem. One result has been the recent de facto cooperation between Israel and Jordan on the West Bank.
Internationally, the Israelis, perhaps naively, thought that intervention would further boost relations with the US. Since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israeli leaders have sought to repair the damage done to the alliance. The arrest of an Israeli spy in Washington exactly a year ago made that even more imperative.
On no count, then, did Israel believe that it could lose by acting as the initiator and conduit for US arms shipments to Iran. And, unlike the Americans, it meant no policy inconsistency.
Far from being squeamish about concessions, Israel has a long history of meeting terrorist demands in exchange for its own men. Most recently, the Israelis in 1985 exchanged 1,150 Palestinians for three Israeli soldiers taken hostage during the Lebanon war.
Ironically the real debate within Israel is not primarily on the policy and principle of dealing with Iran, but rather on the cost to relations with the US. As the investigation unravels, Israeli motives may be exposed as self-interest rather than humanitarian concern for the lives of American nationals.
Israel's foreign policy has traditionally been based on the single principle that virtually any means justifies the end of survival.
In the aftermath of the revelations on the Israeli role, Jerusalem's dependence on the United States actually leaves it highly vulnerable. If President Reagan's foreign policy is now inert, so too is Israel's. Blaming Washington is no excuse; indeed, in the final analysis, Israel has no one to blame but itself.
David Smith, a British correspondent based in Israel, is a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. His book on Israel will be published next year.