THE REAGAN administration has been pursuing a policy premised on and obsessed with conflict with Israel. Officials in Washington are dreaming that they can impose dramatic changes on Israeli policy or even force a new government on Israel. This foolish attitude has produced grave errors in U.S. policy.
American behavior has contributed substantially to a dangerous erosion of Israei-American relations. The administration places all the blame on Israel, but much could be done on this side of the water to salvage the moral and strategic bonds that are vitally important to both countries. The turning point created by Israel's commission of inquiry into the Beirut massacre should be exploited to begin that salvage operation.
High Arab officials visiting Washington have been treated royally -- among them, in the past several weeks, the Kings of Morocco and Jordan and the President of Egypt. Saudi princes are the object of particular devotion and genuflection. By contrast, visiting Israeli officials are given the cold shoulder, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin is not even allowed to come for his semi-annual beating.
The president's own opinion of Israel is said to be favorable. I believe this. Yet, in two years in office he has not taken a single major initiative which would reasonably be described as helping to improve the relationship. I say that as someone who welcomed the president's Middle East initiative of last summer.
Although the administration denies that it considers massive pressures an appropriate way to deal with an ally like Israel, it has in fact invoked more sanctions over a longer time period than any preceding administration, including: suspending for over a year now the agreement on strategic cooperation; refusing to complete the sale of F-16s which its own specialists have confirmed are necessary to offset the massive quantities of arms going to various Arab countries; holding up approval of technology transfers for the Lavi aircraft; and, most importantly, sending and then leaking to the press menacing notes to the prime minister of Israel implying that the entire relationship may be in question. In recent days, the administration has begun hinting darkly that still more sanctions lie ahead.
Some in the administration are constantly advising the president that, if only he "cracked down" on Israel, the core problems of the Middle East could be solved. This is a dangerous illusion. Israel is a powerful and independent country. As the world knows, it is quite able and committed to defend its vital interests, and it is simply unrealistic to imagine that any arrangements can be made in negotiations between the United States and the Arabs, and then somehow imposed on Israel.
The administration's behavior is convincing an important minority in Israel that the United States is not a reliable ally. Some Israelis are actually saying they must be prepared to go it alone. This loss of confidence is destructive to the long-term interests of both countries and it could, if things get worse, force Israel to consider what it will do if it is completely isolated while the Arabs continue their military buildup.
It is also a profound mistake to premise U.S. policy on a change of government in Israel. Israel is a democracy in which the people choose their own government. Menachem Begin is the people's choice to be prime minister, and it is time to stop mocking and maligning him and to begin according him the respect to which he is entitled as the democratically elected leader of our only permanent Middle Eastern ally.
Moreover, key elements of the Administration's approach are unacceptable, not just to the Likud government, but to the great majority of Israelis of all parties.
It's time for the administration to open its eyes to the realities of the Arab world, instead of being blinded by the myth of "moderation." Syria has territorial ambitions in Lebanon and the Administration has not produced any evidence that Damascus intends to leave. Instead, in recent days, the Syrian army has expanded its presence. Jordan's King has not even agreed to sit down with Israel's leadership to fulfill the promise of Camp David. Yet, according to news reports from the Arab world, the administration has promised him our most sophisticated weaponry, 97 per cent of Judea and Samaria, guarantees of a settlement freeze, political control of East Jerusalem, and (according to American press accounts) equipment for a secret Jordanian rapid deployment force.
Saudi Arabia has opposed direct Arab talks with Israel, including discouraging King Hussein to come to the peace table, as well as pressuring Lebanon not to sign realistic agreements with Israel. Peace in the Middle East requires major changes in the Arab world, and American interest is not served by supplicating the Arabs and blaming the Israelis.
It is time for the United States, and especially the Reagan administration, to lift its eyes from the lesser problems of the Middle East, many of which have little real consequence for the U.S., and to return to the essential strategic realities of the region which affect vital American interests.
Israel's air force and navy are the dominant forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Israel freely offers to the United States many forms of defense cooperation including vital air and naval bases which are central to the U.S. national security interest.
Some of the President's advisers seem to have lost sight of the main objective of his policy, that "the paramount American interest in the Middle East is to prevent the region from falling under the domination of the Soviet Union." In the past 24 months, Israel has driven two Soviet clients -- the PLO and the Syrians -- out of a major Arab capital and saved Lebanon for the United States and the West; relinquished the Sinai, helping to cement the bond between the United States and Egypt; offered to provide air and naval facilities to the U.S. armed forces, while Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have declined to cooperate; and delivered a major blow to the reputation of Soviet arms, on which Moscow's influence in much of the world depends. Yet, to listen to some of the president's advisors, all of this is insignificant compared to the urgent need for new security arrangements in southern Lebanon.
When a partnership is strained, it is not enough for one side to call on the other to make all the changes. Nor is it constructive to focus obsessively on the differences, and to ignore the common interests. Much can be done in Washington, now, to improve a relationship that is much more significant for the long-term interests of the United States than many of the countries being so ardently pursued today.