In the late summer of 1982, an informal dinner discussion here between American journalists and a visiting Soviet delegation turned to the issue of Cuban mischief-making in the Western Hemisphere. One of the Americans asked a Soviet guest, "Do you control Fidel Castro?"
The Soviet prefaced his reply by noting that the United States then was in the midst of an acrimonious effort to induce Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to halt the siege of Beirut. "Let me put it this way," he added, "we control Castro in about the same way that you control Begin."
Begin has long since retreated into the obscurity of a hermit-like retirement. But the point made by the Soviet official could still serve as a valid thumbnail description of the relationship that has existed between the United States and Israel in the 38 years since the Jewish state came into being.
That the relationship is far from trouble-free has been underscored by the events of recent weeks. In November, both countries were jolted by the revelation that an American civilian analyst for the Navy, Jonathan Jay Pollard, allegedly had been spying for Israel and had turned over large numbers of secret documents to an Israeli intelligence unit. Pollard's arrest sparked a wave of vague but persistent rumors here that his case was only "the tip of an iceberg" involving wide-scale Israeli espionage in this country.
Then, in the wake of the Palestinian terrorist attacks in the Rome and Vienna airports on Dec. 27, the initial statements from the White House gave the impression that the administration was pressuring Israel not to take retaliatory action that could jeopardize U.S. hopes of reviving the Middle East peace process. The administration subsequently clarified its position by saying it was not opposed to an "appropriate response" against the actual culprits and countries aiding them rather than indiscriminate attacks that might harm innocent people.
Despite the confused nature of the American reaction, U.S. and Israeli officials insist that it did not cause any disagreements between the two countries. But reports from Israel pointed out that the different U.S. statements had caused considerable grumbling about whether the United States arbitrarily was assigning Israel to act as the "world policeman" against terrorism.
Conversely, many Israelis reportedly were annoyed by the implication that their country needs U.S. permission to take actions that it deems necessary to defend itself.
These rumblings have come from a nation that is unique in terms of the strength and intensity of its bonds with the United States. While other countries have historically close ties to the United States, the U.S.-Israeli relationship contains a dimension that goes beyond the friendship engendered by shared values and interests.
In Israel's case, American friendship -- manifested by the hard cash of massive military and economic assistance and by the less tangible but ultimately more important constancy of U.S. political and moral support -- has been a major and possibly decisive factor in its ability to survive through four decades of hostility from its Arab neighbors.
Yet, despite this reality, or perhaps because of it, the relationship often has been beset by tensions that sometimes seem more intelligible when viewed in Freudian rather than political terms. At their root, though, most of these frictions are the inevitable result of an alliance between a superpower with global interests and a tiny, inward-looking nation fearful for its security, resentful of its dependence on its bigger partner and increasingly determined to assert its independence and freedom of action.
These undercurrents usually have been submerged by the unquestioned sense of gratitude that most Israelis feel toward the United States and their admiration for most things American. Still, the phenomenon that some observers have called "the poor relation" or the "rebellious-child syndrome" always has simmered beneath the surface of Israeli society.
It is perhaps most evident in the way that many Israelis privately temper their sense of kinship with the American Jewish community by disparaging the "soft" life of American Jews and by arguing that the American community's fervent support of the Jewish state is due, in part, to guilt feelings because it was safely beyond the reach of the World War II holocaust. Inevitably, these resentments and rationalizations spill over to include all Americans.
For a long time, when Israel was populated largely by people of European origin and governed by a Labor Party that usually hesitated before squabbling with Washington, the resentments surfaced only at times of acute crisis in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But the situation has changed as Israel's demographics have shifted in favor of Middle Eastern Jews who do not share the Europeans' sense of identification with the United States and as sizable numbers of Israelis have come to favor ideas, such as annexation of occupied Arab territories, that run counter to U.S. policies.
These trends came to a crest in the late 1970s when political power shifted from Labor to the right-of-center Likud bloc originally led by Begin. His pursuit of hard-line, expansionist policies such as the acceleration of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, annexation of the Golan Heights and, ultimately, the invasion of Lebanon led to repeated disputes with Washington.
"From a U.S. point of view, Begin was almost impossible to deal with," recalls one senior U.S. official. "If he did something outrageous and we kept quiet, he would say, 'Obviously the Americans don't object, or they would have said something.' If we did protest, he would throw a tantrum and complain loudly about U.S. interference in Israel's affairs."
The tensions of the Begin era largely have been tamped down in the current political climate that has returned governmental control to a Labor-led coalition under Shimon Peres. But, while Peres has put a premium on close cooperation with Washington, many Israelis caution that the frictions that surfaced in Begin's time could be reignited by an incident such as the Pollard case or differences over how tough Israel should be in retaliating against terrorism.
Many fear that such renewed tensions could rebound in favor of Ariel Sharon, whose reputation as the rogue elephant of Israeli politics is based partly on his apparent willingness to go even further than Begin in defying the United States. As one Israeli academician notes:
"Begin was constantly probing the outer limits of how far he could go in trying Washington's patience. But he still operated from the premise that there were limits. Sharon seems to believe that no matter what he does, the United States will have no choice other than to go along."
However, such concerns are largely discounted by U.S. officials who say relations are better than at any point in the past decade. In their view, the recent speculation about disputes over retaliation was essentially groundless, triggered by an initial White House failure to explain carefully the U.S. view and by the tendency of the news media to inflate the matter out of proportion to its importance.
Even the Pollard case, which caused considerable concern and annoyance here, appears to be becoming what a member of Congress calls "a footnote rather than a chapter" in U.S.-Israeli relations. U.S. officials acknowledge that their investigations, including that of the high-level mission that went to Israel, have found nothing to contradict the Israeli claim that Pollard's recruitment was an unauthorized act by misguided intelligence officials and not part of a larger pattern of Israeli espionage here.
That view was underscored by Secretary of State George P. Shultz during his trip to Europe last month. When reporters persisted in asking him about alleged additional Israeli spying, Shultz replied: "I don't know of any other incidents. The Justice Department doesn't know of any other incidents. The FBI doesn't know of any other incidents. Do you know of any other incidents? If you do, tell me about them, because we don't know of anything else."
Looking beyond the immediate situation, the U.S. officials predict that further tensions and dips in relations seem inevitable, especially if a start actually is made on new peace talks and Israel is forced to confront the question of whether it is willing to surrender the occupied territories as the price of peace. But as one official noted:
"There is a hard core of support for Israel in this country that can't be explained simply in terms of American Jewish lobbying and fund-raising. It goes much deeper than that and includes such things as shared values, admiration for Israel's accomplishments, respect for its democracy and stability. Even that's only a partial explanation of something that probably can't really be explained.
"But the support is real; it's there, and even though we in the government sometimes find the Israelis very difficult and trying, it also seems inconceivable that they would do anything drastic enough to dissipate that support and make Americans think of Israel as anything other than one of our staunchest allies."