Israel: a Waning Strategic Asset?

JEROME GROSSMAN

October 25, 1991|By JEROME GROSSMAN

The Middle East peace conference sponsored by the UnitedStates will most assuredly be held, because the collapse of Soviet military and economic power has left America dominant in the region. While this dramatic realignment affects all nations, none is affected as much as Israel.

During the Cold War the United States subsidized Israel largely because it was a ''strategic asset'' in the military and political struggle with the Soviet Union.

In return, Israel supplied its all with performance reports on the latest U.S. weapons systems, appraisals of Soviet military equipment captured from the Arab states, intelligence on conspiracies against the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and surveillance and Soviet activities from planes and electronic interceptions.

At U.S. request, Israel deployed troops on the borders of Jordan and Syria in 1970 to deter Syria, then a Soviet client state, from attacking Jordan. The U.S. military knew that in a crisis, Israel could and would provide deep-water ports and some of the most modern air bases in the world.

Mossad, Israel's extremely effective intelligence service, often served U.S. interests, specifically in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Angola and other places where Washington could not intervene directly. In 1985, Israel cooperated with the Reagan administration in the Iran-contra scandal by secretly shipping U.S. missiles to Iran.

Perhaps the most important strategic service Israel furnished was to agitate for free emigration of Soviet Jews. While a proper and necessary response to centuries-old Russian anti-Semitism, this humanitarian effort also pleased the Washington cold warriors by destabilizing the Soviet Union. Not only did the U.S.S.R. lose its talented Jewish minority, but other minorities who were not free to emigrate complained bitterly.

It is ironic that the apparent cause of current U.S.-Israeli difficulties is the Israeli government's request for guarantees of $10 billion in bank loans to provide for those same Soviet Jews whose migration to Israel was strongly encouraged by the United States.

The causes of the current U.S.-Israeli rift are, however, deeper and more fundamental. The Bush administration is getting tough with Israel because the United States' need for Israel has greatly diminished. No longer considered a menace to U.S. interests, the Soviets now cooperate rather than compete in the Middle East. They have cut loose their client states, Syria and Iraq. All the Arab regimes now look to the United States for political and military protection.

The U.S. State Department has reverted to its policy of 40 years ago, that American oil operations should be the instruments of foreign policy in the region. Those operations require peace, stability and maintenance of the status quo throughout the region, and the United States will use its supremacy to enforce those requirements.

Stark realism requires that the Israeli government come to terms with its new relationship with the United States -- namely, that of merely another client state. Its status as a unique strategic asset vanished with the Cold War.

Continued dependence on the United States ensures that Israel will attend the U.S.-sponsored peace conference, ultimately accept a Gaza-West Bank solution, and stop building settlements in the contested areas. If it does not comply with those U.S. demands, it will not likely receive the $10 billion in loan guarantees and might suffer a foreign-aid cut as well. And if that happens, Israel will be less able to fulfill its reason for existence: to provide a haven for oppressed Jews.

Put not your faith in princes -- or presidents.

Jerome Grossman teaches at Tufts University.

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