SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA. — Recent comments on the challenges of the postwar order in the Middle East ignore the central strategic fact of Israel's formidable nuclear arsenal. The U.S. approach to regional arms control focuses primarily on supply-side measures to prevent the flow of weapons and ''dual-use technologies'' into the region. It fails to address Arab security concerns which have given rise to the demand for weapons of mass destruction.
A regime which freezes Israeli supremacy will lack legitimacy in Arab eyes. Yet, a regime which does not assure Israeli pre-eminence will be unacceptable to Israel. The only way to break this impasse is to create a framework within which the problems of the region may be addressed in parallel negotiations.
American estimates of Israeli nuclear weapons run as high as 100, with yields ranging from 20 to 100 kilotons. These weapons are deliverable with precision by aircraft or solid-fueled missiles and can reach Tunis, Odessa, and Tehran. Newer, longer-range missiles are said to be able to reach all of West and East Europe (including Moscow), all of the Arabian Peninsula and most of the Indian subcontinent.
In short, Israeli non-conventional and conventional capabilities add up to regional superpower status. Neglecting this central fact is like ignoring a hippopotamus disguised as a lamp stand.
The administration is stressing control measures designed to restrict sales of critical military hardware and technologies. The problem with supply-side measures historically has been that determined states have been able to circumvent them, even with Western suppliers. Pakistan's and Israel's nuclear programs are cases in point.
Such third-world supplier states as India and China are hostile to control regimes, viewing them as thinly veiled efforts to maintain the industrialized north's technological domination. With new types of hardware available, prospects for curtailing supply are limited.
Here, then, is the dilemma. On the one hand, it is inconceivable that any Israeli government would ever negotiate away Israeli strategic superiority. The fate of the Jewish people will never again be entrusted to others. On the other hand, the very existence of Israeli capabilities causes security worries in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Their missile and chemical- or biological-weapons programs have been seen as low-tech deterrents against Israeli intimidation, even attack. Whether such concerns are justified is beside the point. They are real.
Alternatives to deterrence have been suggested from time to time. These seek to reduce demand for weapons of mass destruction. Security may be enhanced by a good defense based on weapons which pose little offensive threat (for example, the Patriot and Arrow anti-missile systems); adequate conventional defenses may reduce the need for weapons of last resort; and superpower security guarantees may be a tradeoff for independent efforts to restrict supply. But they could be expected to run into staunch Israeli opposition.
Although the United States may be able to impose arms-control arrangements, which depend heavily on sanctions and co-optation, long-term stability requires the regime to be accepted as legitimate. Arab governments would be hard put to acquiesce in any arrangement that institutionalizes a position of military inferiority. Yet the Israelis, with American support, are committed to maintaining a ''qualitative edge.''
There is probably no solution to the arms-control problem in the present context of Arab-Israeli hostility. The same may be said about many of the other seemingly intractable problems that plague the region. The particular solution is not possible without a general resolution. This requires simultaneous solution of particular problems. A comprehensive approach along the lines of the successful Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is needed. Regional arms control would be one of several negotiating ''baskets.'' There is growing support for such problem-solving. But the administration seems stuck in an approach that is piecemeal, sequential and disjointed.
Robert C. Noel is a specialist on the Middle East and nuclear technology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.