The growing involvement of other Arab states in the Iraqi-Iranian war and the Soviet Union's attempts to increase its influence in the Middle East have deeply disturbed Israeli strategists, who see the rapidly changing regional equation as worsening Israel's already considerable problem with its neighbors.
Officials here note that the war is coming closer to Israel's borders daily. "If more than a dozen ships are busy unloading Soviet missiles, tanks and artillery shells in Aqaba, less than 10 miles away from our Red Sea port of Eilat, we cannot sit idly by," said one.
Israel's most immediate concern, communicated to the White House in a meeting this week among Israeli Ambassador Efraim Evron, Vice President Walter Mondale and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, is Jordanian King Hussein's strong support of Moscow's client state, Iraq.
Fearing that both Soviet and U.S. arms will be moving increasingly close to Israel's eastern border with Jordan, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government specifically requested that Washington delay or cancel an earlier decision to send Hussein 100 U.S.-made tanks.
The broadly reflected worry here marks the second round of policy reassessment that Israel has undergone since the three-week war began. Initially, Israelis predicted a quick victory for Iraq. In published interviews, a wide range of military experts, including former foreign minister Moshe Dayan, former military chief of staff Gen. Mordechai Gur and current Army intelligence chief Gen. Yehoshua Sagui, concluded that such an outcome would be bad for Israel. Iraq has sent soldiers to fight Israel in three wars and has never signed even a cease-fire.
The feeling here was that an Iraqi victory would enable that country to step up work on increasing its nuclear capability, something Israel points to as one of the most serious long-term threats to peace.
But the thinking here changed as the prospect of an extended war of attrition began to appear more likely. A mutual Iranian-Iraqi bloodletting, it was believed, would not only reduce the pressure on Israel's eastern front -- which the Israelis consider their most vulnerable since signing a peace agreement with Egypt -- but would also remove Israel from the center of Middle East attention and allow it to continue its present policies at least until the dust settled.
Officials here recalled an opinion expressed many years ago by a noted Israeli scholar that "the conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors will never be settled. It will just be overtaken by events." Amid the changing geopolitics of the area, it was thought, the world would come to consider Israel, and perhaps also Egypt, as the center of regional stability. c
But events of the past week have changed this assessment. Already, Begin has expressed the fear that the treaty of friendship and cooperation signed Wednesday between the Soviet Union and Syria contained secret provisions that could lead to Moscow's direct military involvement in future Middle East conflicts.
At the same time, the Israelis see little cause for reassurance in the increased level of internecine Arab bickering over the war. Israeli officials play down the importance of difficulties between Syria and Iraq and have denied reports in the Western press that Syria has moved troops from Lebanon to the Syrian-Iraqi border. They see little likelihood of a major eruption in the continuing estrangement between Jordan and Syria.
In fact, the only remote advantage the Begin government appears to see in the widening war is the possibility that Hussein's warlike actions will once and for all dispose of the king's image in the West as "reliable" and "moderate." His motive for coming to the aid of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, they argue, is basically greed -- the hope of material gain and of increased prestige as the result of an Iraqi victory.
Israel now hopes that U.S. and European leaders will learn a lesson concerning Jordanian "moderation" and Iraqi "reasonableness" that will yield a more realistic assessment of who the West's friends are in the region.
The government has also injected domestic politics into the situation, and Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, considered a Begin administration "hawk," last week ridiculed opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who has advocated a "Jordanian option" -- including the return of portions of the Israeli-occupied West Bank to Jordan -- as the solution to the Palestinian problem.
"Settlements are the only answer to Hussein," Sharon said in support of Begin's policy. "The Jordanian option is dead. Instead the Iraqis are preparing a nuclear option for us."