JERUSALEM, SEPT. 15 -- The upheaval in the Middle East's political and strategic order caused by the crisis in the Persian Gulf now appears likely to force Israel to remake its strategy for security and possibly to face the issue of its occupation of Arab territories after years of stalemate.
From their position on the sidelines of Iraq's confrontation with a U.S.-led alliance, Israeli leaders until now have often seen themselves as among the prospective winners in the crisis, because of the likelihood that two major enemies -- Iraq and the Palestine Liberation Organization -- eventually will be defeated or discredited.
Still, the U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Helsinki last weekend and the events that have followed it have made clear that Israel, too, faces an upheaval in its diplomatic and military standing as a result of the multinational effort to make the Middle East the testing ground for a new world order.
On the simplest level, the move by the Bush administration to forge a strong military and strategic alliance with Arab states in and around the gulf, and to provide them with tens of billions of dollars in new weapons, has threatened Israel's primacy as a U.S. regional ally and its traditional policy of maintaining qualitative superiority over its neighbors in military hardware.
But also, by his invitation in Helsinki for the Soviet Union to assume a greater role in Middle East affairs, President Bush implicitly prepared for a development Israeli leaders deeply fear: an eventual joint superpower effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such an initiative probably would result in the strongest pressure in years for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Some Israelis believe the crisis also could encourage breakthroughs for the Jewish state, such as overt recognition of its existence by some Arab countries aligned with the United States. More likely, however, the country faces a struggle to find a secure position in the region's new diplomatic and military balance, and possibly a new domestic debate over what borders and alliances are needed for that security.
"I think the rules of the Middle East are likely to change radically, and a lot of the principles Israel used to live by are going to be viewed differently," said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. "It's going to take time for . . . Israel to adjust to it."
Although it has faced continual threats to its security, Israel benefited in many respects from the superpower rivalry that until now governed the Middle East. As Washington's chief client over the last two decades, Israel was assured a steady flow of advanced U.S. weapons that guaranteed its superiority over Soviet allies such as Syria and Iraq and moderate Arab states such as Saudia Arabia.
In a perverse way, the Cold War ensured a certain stability among the warring parties of the Middle East. "On one hand, the competition between the superpowers contributed to an arms race and eventually to armed conflict," said Yair Evron, a political scientist specializing in security issues at Tel Aviv University. "But on the other hand, it was effective in preventing major outbreaks of violence, and stopping them when they started."
The Cold War also helped freeze diplomatic progress in the region following the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, leaving Israel in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That suited the right-wing leaders who have dominated Israeli governments since 1977. Israel felt little pressure to resolve its own potentially explosive domestic schism over what to do with the occupied lands and papered the problem over with a series of "national unity" governments that endured from 1984 until early this year.
Despite the prospect of Soviet involvement raised at Helsinki, most Israelis continue to believe that a new Middle East order will be dominated by the United States. That is a double-edged prospect: While Washington is committed to Israel's security, its new role may make it less responsive to Israel's ambitions to sustain its regional military superiority and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
The erosion of Israel's position already can be seen as the Bush administration prepares to transfer tens of billions of dollars in new weapons to Saudia Arabia, a country whose hostility to Israel had, until now, limited its ability to obtain U.S. weapons. Israeli concern has been heightened by Washington's evident reluctance to immediately compensate Israel with its own new weapon supplies or a write-off of its military debts.
Even though some Israelis feel the U.S. military deployment in the Middle East protects Israel in the short term from any attack by Arab states, many Israeli strategists believe the country needs more substantial guarantees of security. Israel, they say, should aspire to become a direct part of any new network of alliances set up by the United States with its Arab allies -- or, at least, to set up parallel arrangements with Washington.
Dore Gold, an expert on U.S.-Israeli strategic relations at the Jaffee Center of Tel Aviv University, said the new framework could resemble the "strategic consensus" that then-U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig aspired to create among Washington and Middle East states in the early 1980s. That would mean a series of parallel agreements between the United States, individual Arab states and Israel, with the common aim of deterring a mutual enemy. The difference is that Iraq would take the place of the Soviet Union as that enemy.
Other observers say Israel should seek to lock in its relationship with the United States by negotiating a formal defense treaty with Washington, a step that was once a primary objective of Israeli policy but has fallen from favor in recent years. While such a treaty would increase Israel's sense of security, past U.S. administrations have taken the position that its signing should be linked to a withdrawal from the occupied territories.
To some extent, Israel's ability to react to the rapidly changing situation is hampered by the nature of its right-wing government, which in addition to having a novice foreign minister in David Levy is headed by a prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, noted for his reluctance to take new initiatives. "There is a policy dilemma," said Gold. "On the one hand, one wants to move actively and be part of establishing the new Middle East order. On the other hand, the Middle East is changing rapidly, and you don't want to, say, race ahead on the Palestinian issue when maybe that issue will soon take on a totally different dimension."
In the aftermath of the Helsinki summit, perhaps the greatest uncertainty for Israel is the role the Soviet Union may eventually play in stabilizing the Middle East, and what influence Moscow may exert on the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Soviet attitudes toward Israel clearly are changing: Yesterday in Moscow, Gorbachev met for the first time with members of the Israeli cabinet, including Science Minister Yuval Neeman, the leader of one of the country's most extreme right-wing parties.
Still, Soviet Middle East policy continues to focus on two strategies that the Israeli right staunchly opposes: an international conference to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and an arms control process to stop the region's weapons buildup. Although the United States does not yet appear ready to press Israel into participating in an international conference, Secretary of State James A. Baker III does appear to support an arms control initiative. "Arms control is one of the things that Israel is going to have to start thinking about," predicted Gold.