An important debate over U.S. arms sales to Mideast alliesshaped up last week when Richard Cheney, secretary of defense, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee he expected sales to such countries as Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia to increase.
''I don't think there's any question but that there are legitimate security threats to Saudi Arabia,'' Mr. Cheney said. ''They've been through a pretty severe scare.''
Saudi interest in acquiring American arms was increased when they experienced first-hand during the Gulf War the effectiveness of Patriot missiles and top-quality U.S. planes, tanks and artillery.
No sooner did Mr. Cheney signal the administration's intention to proceed with sales of sophisticated U.S. arms to Arab allies than some congressmen questioned the wisdom of fueling an arms race in this fundamentally unstable region. Others objected to the increasingly heavy burden placed on Israel by the sale of high-tech weapons to Arab governments.
Mr. Cheney made it clear, as have other administration spokesmen, that it is important for Arab allies to be strong enough to deter attacks against themselves and to defend themselves from aggression -- at least until U.S. forces could come to their defense. In the administration's view, making weapons available to them is the only way to provide for the security of friendly nations in the region while maintaining a minimal American military presence.
The problem is that the U.S. friends and allies in the region are not friends and allies of each other. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab states remain formally at war with Israel and to this day refuse to end that state of belligerency or to engage in negotiations with representatives of the Jewish state.
The Arab boycott against Israel remains in force, requiring foreign corporations to choose between doing business with Israel and being barred from the Arab world, or doing business in Arab countries and avoiding economic contact with Israel.
Despite rumors of softening, the diplomatic and military boycott imposed on Israel is a concrete symbol of Arab refusal to accept the existence of a Jewish state in the region. It is a tangible expression of active hostility toward Israel.
The Bush administration showed its understanding of this hostility when it urged Israel not to respond to repeated Iraqi attacks on Tel Aviv and Haifa.
It is possible that the administration overestimated the likelihood that Arab governments would withdraw from the coalition rather than fight on the same side with Israel. But one thing is certain: By insisting that Israel forgo any response to Iraq's attacks, and by refusing to share military codes that would have permitted Israeli pilots to identify themselves to coalition forces, the administration made it clear that it took Arab hostility toward Israel very seriously.
If the anti-Israel feelings of moderate gulf states are so important to those states that they could not bear to profit from Israeli military strength, then their weapons must be counted as a danger to Israel.
What Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbors acquire, Israel must match, even though its economy already suffers a crushing burden of defense expenditure. Israel has survived so far only by maintaining military superiority over the combined military resources of Arab neighbors who, unlike Egypt, will not renounce their state of war.
In this situation, friends of Israel -- myself included -- oppose the sale of sophisticated weapons to her Arab neighbors, even though we value good relations with those neighbors and desire that they be able to protect themselves against armed predators.
These objections, of course, would disappear if the moderate Arab nations ended their belligerence against Israel. Now is the time to move toward this end. Saddam Hussein, who claimed to be the leader of the rejectionist bloc, is defeated. The myth of Arab unity (including the myth of Arab unity against Israel) was irreparably destroyed by Mr. Hussein's devastation of Kuwait and his threats against Saudi Arabia.
His betrayal of Arab brothers was matched by Yasser Arafat and various PLO groups who made common cause with Mr. Hussein against governments that had supported them for decades. The PLO did not merely ''back the wrong horse,'' as some have suggested. Saddam Hussein is no horse. He is rather the most cruel, violent, radical Arab ruler in a violent region.
Moreover, Palestinians in Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza who actively supported his aggression demonstrated that Palestinian goals were not necessarily the goals of all Arabs.
By calling attention to the huge Palestinian problems in Kuwait and Jordan, the war made it clear that the ''Palestinian problem'' is not simply an Arab-Israeli affair. It is above all an Arab problem. Dealing with it will require that Jordan and other Arab states assume their responsibility.
It makes no historical or political sense for Arab governments or the U.S. government to pretend that Israel, which is a sliver of a country, has the territory or resources to alone solve the Palestinian issue. It makes no sense either for Arab states to pretend they can only make peace with Israel after Israel has resolved that issue.
Israel's Arab neighbors made war on the Jewish state when Jordan controlled the West Bank, when Egypt administered Gaza and when the Golan Heights were part of Syria. The war -- not the territory -- is the basic problem.
A real peace process would begin with Arabs making peace with Israel. Once that peace is in place, it will be possible to provide for collective arrangements that will not threaten the security of any state in the region.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.