The American people cannot but be somewhat uneasy at the outcome of the Reagan-Begin visit for all the cordiality surrounding it. They must wonder what a "new strategic relationship" with Israel means. Is this in effect the first step toward a full-blown mutual defense treaty, something which Prime Minister Begin appears to favor? It will be up to the Reagan administration to assure the public that there is not more to the agreement for strategic cooperation than meets the eye -- and that any mutual security treaty with Israel would necessarily be contingent on a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.
For the moment the proposed agreement seems to be largely symbolic. Israel and the United States already work together closely in the military and intelligence fields. The "new" collaboration calls for joint naval exercises, something already going on unofficially, and such unprovocative measures as the storage of US medical supplies in Israel and strategic planning against an outside -- i.e. Soviet -- attack. None of this seems an excessive or unreasonable commitment.
It was undertaken with such fanfare in Washington presumably for two main reasons. One was to ease the way for the President to press the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. It seems clear that Congress can be more easily persuaded to go along with the controversial sale if the close US-Israeli relationship is reaffirmed. In an ironic twist, the administration is even planning to argue that, if the $8 billion sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia is blocked, its new strategic cooperation with Israel as part of an overall plan for defense of the Gulf region is also jeopardized.
Secondly, the Reagan administration appears to be adopting the same strategy of "carrots not sticks" with respect to Israel as it has in the case of South Africa. The theory seems to be that an understanding of Israel's genuine security fears and a conscious effort to meet them is the best way to encourage Israeli flexibility on the issue of Palestinian autonomy. Certainly the Israelis are pleased with the planned new security arrangement, seeing in it the prospect of a more ambitious US military involvement in Israel than Washington policymakers concede.
Whether the Reagan strategy does indeed lay the groundwork for progress on the political problems remains to be seen. However, it disappoints many that so little effort was made during the Begin visit to do something about the Palestinian question. The focus was almost exclusively on building a strategic consensus, conveying the impression that the United States does not have a Middle East policy except as a component of its overall strategy of containing Soviet expansionism. In fact it appears that the US is trading a closer strategic relationship with Israel not for concessions on the basic issues -- self-determination for the Palestinians and an overall peace -- but for a matter of secondary importance, namely, AWACS.
After Mr. Begin's foray into Washington, the fundamental questions persist: What good will it do to build an anti-Soviet strategic consensus in the Middle East without an equally vigorous effort to remove the political conflicts on which Soviet aggression feeds? And, if such a parallel effort is indispensable, should not the United States be using its diplomatic leverage to push forward the peace process? There is no evidence it is doing so. Until it does, many Americans may doubt that closer US military ties with Israel are in the national interest.