It is evident that American ties to Israel have not kept most Arab states from tightening their ties to the United States in the Iraq crisis. These include the military ties which, in the conventional wisdom, no Arab government could accept lest it be instantly struck down by an enraged Arab public -- although of course these new ties have not been combat-tested. So much so far for the familiar lament that this country's closeness to Israel has crippled its capacity to serve its strategic interests in the Middle East.
More: any Arab military ties with Israel and certainly any Arab strategic reliance on Israel are commonly regarded as unthinkable, a fatal confession of the Arab order's inability to manage its sovereign affairs. Still, it is plain that if things came to a certain pass, Israel would join the battle against Iraq, and while it would be acting for its own goals, it would also be reducing a gross threat to the Arab establishment -- a threat that Arabs were unable to reduce by themselves. Arabs would storm, and privately be relieved, as they were when Israel took out the reactor that otherwise might already have put nuclear weapons in Saddam Hussein's hands.
Political discretion obscures but does not erase strategic truths. The Israelis have no formal relationship of strategic cooperation with the Arabs as they do with the Americans, but they have an informal one of greater ultimate value to the two sides. Inherently their military forces are linked: Arabs constitute the first regional line of defense against Iraq, Israelis the last.
The statesman's problem becomes how to use the strategic reality to shape a new political reality between Israel and the Arabs. Already, the two sides share a common dedication to stability in the area, a common fear of radical regimes, a common reach for association with the industrialized democracies. This adds up to a basis for cooperation far sturdier than what is available to most sets of nations. Egypt and Israeli aside, what they lack are ''only'' political and economic relations -- the ties of daily life.
In his suspect fashion, Saddam Hussein has already weighed in -- with a proposal that Israel withdraw from Arab lands at once and without political recompense to initiate a comprehensive settlement of regional disputes. His proposal is a non-starter, but deeper currents are flowing. In many minds the view flourishes that, however the different Middle East occupations came to be, they should all be terminated. A rough symmetry fairly inclines moderate Arabs to expect American cooperation in ending Israeli occupation of the West Bank in order to balance off their cooperation in ending Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
Here one needs to get past debating points. The West Bank occupation is different: it came about not by unprovoked aggression as in Kuwait but by Israeli response to a gratuitous attack by Jordan's King Hussein in 1967. The implication, however, is not that West Bank occupation is legitimate and should be extended but that it should be ended in its own way. Iraq's occupation should end by withdrawal; nobody owes Baghdad anything. Israel's occupation should end by negotiation; Arabs owe Israel peace.
What sort of negotiation? I think serious people now have to acknowledge that the Iraqi aggression -- the whole Iraqi phenomenon -- lends great force to the Israeli insistence that peace requires not just an Israeli-Palestinian settlement but the commitment of the Arab hinterland states to normal relations with Israel. This offers the best hope of bringing along the conservative Likud and its constituency.
At the same time, the Iraqi aggression also lends great force to the insistence of other Israelis that peace with the Arab hinterland requires a Palestinian settlement, the better to reduce the area of discord between Arabs and Israelis and to broaden the foundation of strategic and other cooperation between them.
The Israeli government is said to be stiffening against the prospect of a renewed American diplomatic drive to launch Israeli-Palestinian talks. But from Israel's point of view, what better time than when Yasser Arafat's PLO has greatly diminished itself in American eyes by embracing Saddam Hussein? In any event, the right American relaxer is to add a second parallel track of Israeli engagement with the Arab states. It is too early to hail Saddam as an accidental Arab-Israeli peacemaker, but it is not too soon to think hard about how to turn the crisis he created to enduring Arab-Israeli advantage.