THE United States and Israel signed strategic cooperation agreements in 1983. Their purpose, said President Reagan, was to counter ``Soviet involvement in the Middle East.'' But even in the cold-war era a US-Israel tie had little bearing on the possible spread of communism in the Arab world. Indeed, Israel was (and is) considered a net strategic liability by many US government officials. This is why Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff General John Vessey, and others opposed the 1983 accords. Israel's importance to the US, as Henry Kissinger remarked at the time, is primarily ``sentimental.'' Today the Soviet Union is largely absent from most of the region, yet the Bush administration is reportedly deepening the US-Israel relationship.
Sentimental considerations are crucial to Israel's standing with the American public. The twin pillars of Israel's special relationship with American are its democratic system and a moral stature rooted in the Holocaust experience. But the pillars are crumbling. Israeli democracy is in jeopardy. A 1990 poll found that more Israelis prefer a government with ``strong leadership'' to one that is democratic. Moreover, Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, sustained human-rights abuses, and stonewal ling of peace negotiations made the Jewish state an international pariah and, before August 1990, strained ties with Washington and tarnished its image with the American public.
The US was right to send Patriot missiles to Israel. If commitments mean anything, they mean helping friends resist unprovoked attacks. It is also appropriate that US Army crews operating the Patriots will be replaced by Israeli operators. A feeling of self-reliance is important for the morale of Israelis who are, in reality, profoundly dependent on the US.
Israel must not, however, be rewarded financially by the US for pursuing a policy of restraint that is in its own national interest. Israel has the right to retaliate, but it has nothing to gain from striking Iraq. There are no Iraqi targets that haven't already been hit by allied forces, and the air and missile threat to Israel is now minimal. Continued restraint has strong popular support in Israel and elsewhere, and it avoids arousing the Arab masses and weakening the multinational coalition.
Since the mid-1970s Israel has received about $49 billion in direct and indirect US foreign aid. Because of our concern for Israel's security, Egypt has received $28 billion between 1980 and 1991. Aid to Israel and Egypt represents about 40 percent of all US foreign aid. In January, Israeli Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai spoke of presenting Washington with a ``bill'' for $13 billion to cover war costs and settlement of Soviet immigrants in Israel. Some of the latter have been settled in East Jerusalem i n violation of US policy and international law.
It is unclear why US taxpayers who currently subsidize each Israeli citizen by $90 annually should up the ante. Yet Congress will be generous. Concerning Israel, one senator remarked: ``We are like the wealthy parents of adolescents who can't resist giving our beloved too much.''
When (not if) Congress increases the already excessive aid package to Israel, strings must be attached. The phrase ``pressuring Israel'' is a charged one. Some claim that US pressures tend to backfire. But the US has often used leverage successfully. Call them conditions, pressures, quid pro quos, or plain common sense - the US must extract something in return. That something should relate to Israel's position on a future Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
The US will make a grave mistake if it concludes a mutual security pact with Israel before a final peace settlement. For now, Israel and the US should ponder a wise insight from poet Robert Frost: some distance and a few good fences make for a sounder friendship.
Due to an editing error, the opinion-page column ``Putting Strings on Aid to Israel,'' March 1, misstates the amount of US aid received by Israel, per capita, each year. The figure should have been $900.