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It has one of world's best armies, but US may expect too much help in case of Soviet attack

President Reagan has proclaimed it loudly. Israel is a "strategic asset" to the United States. But is Israel really that critical to the West?

In the wake of devastating Israeli air strikes on Baghdad, Iraq, and Beirut recently, experts on the middle east here are beginning to ponder precisely what strategic benefits Israel confers on the US.

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By no means have all of them reached the same conclusion as the President.

Essentially, Mr. Reagan contends that Israel has a key role to play in deterring Soviet expansionism in the Middle East. "Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus," he wrote when still a presidential candidate, "can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow's designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being."

If his view of Israel's utility has been altered in recent weeks, it is not apparent. The embattled nation is still a "strategic asset" as far as the White House is concerned. Indeed, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger emphasized as much at a breakfast meeting with reporters July 28. The State Department concurs. Says a spokesman: "Israel is a known sum of money in the bank."

But as a number of Middle East observers in this city see it, the administration promoted Israel to the rank of strategic ally without determining whether it actually could fulfill such a role. In fact, by one account, Israel actually "pressured" the administration to characterize it in such elevated terms.

According to a study recently released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Israel "remains the predominant Middle East military power."

But the Pentagon is simply not certain to what extent it can count on Israel in the event of a Soviet attack on the Gulf. Neither is the Carnegie Endowment. "Would the very potent Israeli Air Force join the fray?" its study asks.

According to London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, Israel can field 17 divisions, 535 combat aircraft, and 3,050 medium tanks. The excellence of its Air Force is universally acknowledged. "For what it has to do , it's the world's best," enthuses a Pentagon source.

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although it is generally assumed that Israel would extend base facilities to the US in the event of a Soviet descent on the Persian Gulf, not all are convinced that such an offer would automatically be forthcoming.

"It would depend entirely on how the leadership in Israel perceived the situation," stresses Col. John Collins, chief military analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "There are instances where we can rely on them fully -- and others where we don't know what the heck they're going to do," he says.

But the State Department takes a different view. "Israel has said that all the US needs to do is to ask and it can use its facilities," says a spokesman, adding that vital repair and overhaul resources would also be available for US forces in Israel.

But the US might choose to use Egyptian facilities, say observers -- particularly Ras Banas, which juts into the Red Sea east of Aswan, and which has been earmarked for use by the Rapid Deployment Force in times of tension.

"It makes as much sense to make use of Egypt as Israel in wartime," says a congressional source. "Israeli bases are crowded." The US has expressed its willingness to spend $400 million modernizing Ras Banas, of which the Egyptian Air Force would have full use.

Whether or not American troops use Israeli bases at some future date depends on Soviet intentions with regard to the Gulf.

Colonel Collins doubts that the Kremlin has any intention of invading the area. "The Soviet Union has a very low proclivity for risk-taking," he asserts. "In any case, it's under enormous pressure in Eastern Europe."

Indeed, in its recent study, the Carnegie Endowment concluded that the principal threats to Western interests in the Gulf "stem much more from the political instability to the area than from the likelihood of Moscow's direct use of force."

But if the appearance of Soviet legions on the shores of the Persian Gulf is "one of the more remote threats," as one observer puts it," we have to prepare for the worst case."

The employment of Israeli troops against Soviet forces raises problems, several sources agree. "If Soviet troops rolled into Jiddah, the Saudis probably would still object to Israeli troops on their soil," says one Reagan administration official candidly.

Military observers add that Israel might be loath to join in hostilities against the Soviet Union for fear that, with its small population, it could not afford a lengthy war of attrition against an opponent with virtually unlimited manpower. Israel's preference is for a short, sharp blitzkrieg in which it strikes the first blow, thereby limiting its losses.

While the President would clearly like to brandish Israel's formidable military might in deterring any Soviet assault on the Persian Gulf and its oil fields, Israel has neither described itself as a strategic asset of the US nor indicated that it would join and anti-Soviet coalition in the event of war in the region, says a congressional expert on the Middle East, who asked not to be identified. "Why take on the added burden of defending the area against the Soviet Union?" he asks.

If Israel's role in any Persian Gulf conflict is uncertain, Israel itself is quite sure it is an asset for the United States -- although it has never claimed to be a strategic one.

Not only is it the most powerful nation in the area, but it also is the most stable, assert its spokesmen.

Adds US Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, "It's the only democracy in the Middle East, the only certain friend we have there."

Although little talked-about, the US does benefit from the exchange of intelligence with Israel. The CIA and Mossad, its Israeli counterpart, may not always be on the best of terms, but cooperation between the two is thought to produce valuable intelligence throughout the Near East.

Moreover, Israel is an invaluable weapons laboratory for the US. General Dynamics executives and Pentagon brass are doubtless now studying the performance of the Israeli F-16s that took part in the recent attacks on Lebanon and Iraq.

Some observers believe the raids may persuade President Reagan to adopt a more evenhanded approach in dealing with the Middle East, to revert to an approach pioneered by President Eisenhower and taken up later by Jimmy Carter.

Clovis Maksoud, chief representative of the Arab League in the US, believes this country already has "distanced itself" from Israel's "excessive aggression" of late. But he complains that the US is not yet displaying the evenhandedness expected from a superpower.

"There is not yet enough objectivity," Mr. Maksoud says. He believes the notion of Israel's strategic importance to the US has prevented Washington from appreciating "the realities of the region."

Colonel Collins has no doubts about the deleterious effects of the special relationship between the US and Israel. Writing in his 1973 book, "Grand Strategy," he observed: "This country's sponsorship of Israel shattered our promising beginning in the Middle East, disaffected 100 million friendly Arabs from Muscat to Marrakesh, and, to one degree or another sabotaged . . . our key interests [in the region]."

As he sees it, "emotion and a moral commitment supplanted calculated reason in the formulation of a foreign policy that to this day shapes our strategy for that strife-torn area."

The assertion that Israel is of strategic importance to the US is "without any facts to back it up," declares former US Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota , chairman of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

In the opinion of the former Democratic senator, the Jewish state constitutes a "strategic liability" for the US. Besides insisting that it is a drain on US tax dollars, by reason of the aid it receives, he claims that Israel's "expansionism" has effectively driven a wedge between the US and its Arab allies. "The Soviet Union is in the Middle East precisely because Israel is expansionist," asserts Abourezk, a Lebanese-American.

An academic authority on Middle Eastern affairs, who declines to be named, deems "false" the argument that Israel is of strategic value to the United States. "Israel undermines US power in the Middle East, so it's certainly not an asset," he says.

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