THE Israeli and American governments have skillfully danced around the issues of mutual commitment and their future relationship in the Mideast. Reports that Washington, in the event of war with Iraq, will strike Iraqi missile facilities and give Jerusalem valuable ``real time'' intelligence in return for Israel's promise not to preempt suggest that both sides want to keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein and off their own major differences. These are sensible responses to the immediate situation. But the growing sense that Iraqi and Israeli occupation of foreign territory are linked will not go away. One way to respond is to consider, for the first time, a formal Israeli-American defense treaty once the Gulf crisis ends. This suggestion may seem odd odd in at least two ways. For one thing, it is out of step with recent developments. Unlike President Reagan and former Secretary of State George Shultz, who valued Israel as a reliable strategic ally during a bad period of Soviet-American relations during the early 1980s, President Bush and Secretary of State Baker lack these incentives. Not only is the cold war over, but Mr. Bush and his closest advisers are known not to share Reagan's emotional attachment to Israel. They also believe that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir misled them about his interest in the last American peace plan, leading to acrimonious words from Mr. Baker and anger on Bush's part about Israeli bad faith.
Domestic problems also seem likely to pull America's attention inward when the Gulf crisis is over. Americans are increasingly worried about drugs, education, and national competitiveness, and decreasingly concerned about defense issues. A new commitment will be controversial.
Actually, a mutual defense pact, in which the signatories' responsibilities would be fully spelled out, would clarify and perhaps circumscribe America's commitment to Israel. This step - which US administrations have resisted since the 1940s - would formally commit America to protect Israel in the context of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Zionist conflict and provide a long-term foundation for American forces in the region. If the diplomacy is handled skillfully, such pledges could become part of the new regional Middle Eastern security structure recently suggested by Secretary Baker.
A formal treaty also makes sense in light of recent changes in the international system. The end of the cold war portends truly flexible alignments for the first time in nearly 50 years. Nations' diplomacy will have to be more agile and their commitments more precise than we have known them to be for a long time.
As Henry Kissinger pointed out years ago, in a sharply bipolar world interests are unambiguous. A relative gain for one side - such as a defeat for Israel in the 1973 war - meant an intolerable loss for the other. Since neither could allow such changes, each knew where the other stood on key issues. When alignments become more fluid, as is now occurring, some small nations cannot know for certain on whom they can count. As a result, formal commitments become more important signals of intent and resolve.
Fluid alignments will be the norm for the near future. The tight, rigid blocs of the cold war were a response to sharply defined threats that won't reappear. However many great powers emerge, it will be necessary to spell commitments out as precisely as possible to avoid the kind of miscalculation that allowed Iraq to invade Kuwait.
Even if this is correct, two objections will still arise. First, while friendly Arab regimes have accepted an implicit US commitment to Israel, their domestic politics - in particular, growing Islamic fundamentalism - may not tolerate an explicit one. This will be especially true if Israel takes a formal US security guarantee as a green light to stall on realistic peace proposals, tolerate extremist Jewish vigilantes in the occupied territories, or settle Soviet refugees there. Israel, for its part, will probably balk at a treaty wrapped in the kinds of qualifications Americans could reasonably demand on these issues.
A formal US-Israeli treaty, furthermore, might lead to a divisive foreign policy debate at home. As recent splits among conservatives shows, it will be difficult in a post-cold-war world to justify American defense commitments that involve palpable risk of war. Familiar charges of divided loyalty are already being leveled at supporters of Israel, and a heated debate could turn ugly.
Both of these objections can be refuted. For one thing, Arab governments have shown themselves masters of realpolitik and able to contain extremism. They would explain to their publics that a formal US pledge to safeguard Israel within the pre-1967 borders - conditioned on a good-faith Israeli peace effort - involves nothing more than Americans have given for well over a generation. US officials could emphasize that the guarantee will not be implemented until the Arab-Israeli peace process is well underway.
If it is true, as some are saying, that the world is temporarily unipolar, America has a unique opportunity to achieve such a settlement of a long and tragic problem.
Domestically, it is obvious that neither the Bush administration nor any plausible Democratic alternative wishes to retreat to isolationism. If so, this is an issue on which to take a stand. No one doubts that the Middle East is a singularly unstable region; setting in place a stable security structure there, buttressed by a defense pact with Israel, is an effort that can command sufficient domestic support. It is well worth a try.