Israel as a `Strategic Asset'

WHEN Saddam Hussein's tanks entered into Kuwait they not only destroyed the independence of that oil sheikdom. They also buried a myth of the cold-war era, that Israel was America's ``strategic asset'' in the Middle East. Since the Iraqi invasion, President Bush and his aides have demanded that Israel keep its head down and its guns holstered, arguing that any active Israeli role in the crisis would make it more difficult for the US to maintain the Arab coalition against Iraq.

Ironically, a few days before the crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir received a memorandum which suggested that ``the American interest for cooperation with Israel stems from the need to secure the energy resources and the regular supply of oil to the US and Japan.'' The memorandum also predicted that the partnership between the two countries will ``contain aggression by regional powers'' and that Israel will serve as a ``maintenance base for [American] forces that might operate in the area.''

The first stage of the Iraqi invasion seemed to accentuate these points. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D) of New York argued that the Iraqi invasion ``shores up Israeli tremendously'' by raising its strategic value. And the Likud leaders expressed their confidence that a disunited Arab world would revitalize Washington's perception of Israel as a strategic asset and divert attention from the intifada.

However, the Persian Gulf crisis pointed out that ``when push comes to shove the US is not ready or willing to use Israeli services in order to solve crises in the area,'' suggested Shimon Shifer, the political columnist of Israel's largest circulation daily, Yediot Aharonot. Shifer called upon the Israelis and their leaders to face reality. ``We are not a strategic asset,'' he stated.

His colleague, Akiva Eldar, the diplomatic correspondent of Haaretz, added, ``On the face of it, the American taxpayer has the right to ask his representatives why they are shelling out $3 billion to a country that, at the moment of truth, turns out to be nothing but an empty vassal.''

The Persian Gulf crisis highlighted the changes in the Israeli-American relationship since the end of the cold war. The fall of the Berlin Wall shattered the marriage between American neoconservatives with their messianic cold-war agenda and the Likud government with its vision of Greater Israel. Although previous administrations assigned to Israel an anti-Soviet role, that approach was balanced by the US role as a mediator between the Israelis and the Arabs.

Moscow's cooperation with Washington in solving regional conflicts has made it difficult for Israel to market itself as America's anti-Soviet ``strategic asset.'' And the Palestinian uprising emphasized the costs of placing the issue of the West Bank and Gaza on the back burner. Now it is clear that without any serious move on the Israeli-Palestinian front, the US would find it difficult to form a pro-Western alliance of Arab states to contain Iraq.

Even with progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian solution, it is probable that the Iraqi dictator and his legions would have marched on Kuwait. But the Likud government's negative response to Egyptian efforts to get the Israeli-Palestinian talks going accelerated the radicalization in the Palestinian community. It stripped Saddam Hussein's opponents of support and put pressure on King Hussein of Jordan to ally himself with his namesake across the eastern border - a move encouraged also by the Likud leaders' suggestions that the Hashemite Kingdom should be replaced with a Palestinian republic.

As Washington policymakers contemplate the formation of a ``new security structure'' in the Middle East, they should avoid adopting the idea of establishing a ``strategic consensus'' between America's ``power assets'' in the region, Israel and the Arab states. Some might argue that the Iraqi threat might help unite Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even Syria, even without a political solution in the West Bank and Gaza, or for that matter in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

This would be yet another Middle Eastern mirage. The perception that such a grouping would include the Jewish state which is occupying an alien Arab population would produce explosive repercussions. Nothing short of peace negotiations would satisfy the domestic and regional needs of the pro-Western Arab states. Even in such a case, an Israeli membership in a new regional security arrangement would have to be low-key, providing only intelligence and technical services to the new alliance.

Some Israelis and their American supporters might be feeling depressed over Israel's ``passive'' role in the Gulf crisis. They shouldn't. Israel has an opportunity now to establish some type of modus vivendi with its Arab neighbors and allow them to share the main respnsibility for maintaining regional security.

The Jewish state could devote its energies to reforming its political and economic system. It would be able to concentrate on Zionism's original goals of absorbing Jewish refugees and building a modern trading state that would be able to compete in the new international economic markets.

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