NOT too long ago it was fashionable to view Israel as a strategic liability to the United States -- an associate whose existence affronted the natural order of things, namely an idyllic relationship between America and some 20 or so Arab nations with a combined population of 100 million people. Israel's existence was acknowledged, largely for ``domestic political reasons,'' and the US was committed to its survival. But if only old Warren Austen had been permitted to cast the right vote at the UN back in 1948. . . .
Recent experience has discredited this argument, which is rarely heard in this form today. The probability of big-power conflict in the Middle East is lower and the US is better able to defend its vital interests because of the strength of Israel, its stability as a democracy, and its reliability as a strategic partner.
Yet variations of the old line of argument survive in the form of attacks on the level of US economic and military assistance to Israel. Indeed, they are recently cloaked with new respectability growing from Israel's urgent need for more American assistance, the record of gross recent errors in Israel's conduct of domestic and foreign policy, and pressures for spending cutbacks in Washington arising from America's fiscal deficits.
Whatever the formulation, cutting off a desperate ally seems neither a prudent nor a particularly moral policy, though determining how much assistance Israel should receive over and above the $2.4 billion currently allocated is a decision requiring analytical tools not available to this column.
On the economic side, the approach of Secretary of State George Shultz appears about right: enough assistance for Israel to avert a financial collapse threatened by exhaustion of its foreign-currency reserves, and an insistence on structural reforms and personal sacrifices to place the Israeli economy on a sounder footing.
A similar process is at work on the military side of the assistance ledger, where it is assumed that Israel requires a qualitative weapons edge against its Arab adversaries.
But all this is merely the starting point of analysis.
It begs the question central to the US-Israeli relationship, central to reinvigoration of the Arab-Israeli peace process, which began so promisingly at Camp David, and central to the solution of the region's great human problem -- the condition of Palestinian Arabs.
The issue is Israeli occupation policies on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, its dealings with the resident Palestinian Arab populations, the conflict between Israeli actions and American policy objectives, and the legitimacy of linking American financial assistance to a set of Israeli actions more in line with those objectives.
A cursory examination of the historical record suggests a disturbing pattern of agreements violated in letter or spirit, US injunctions and policy initiatives ignored or defied, and American aid flowing unabated, indeed necessitated to some extent by the most objectionable manifestations of Israeli stubbornness.
Security Council Resolution 242 passed after the ``six-day war'' of 1967 and reaffirmed six years later during the ``Yom Kippur war'' is based on the ``inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war'' and requires the ``withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.''
The Camp David accords declare that ``a withdrawal of Israeli armed forces will take place and there will be a redeployment of the remaining Israeli forces into specified security locations'' during the subsequent period, in which ``full autonomy'' is to be provided to residents of the West Bank and Gaza.
Certainly these requirements were not self-enforcing.
The applicable standards for Israel as an occupying power under international law were succinctly stated by one former US ambassador to the UN as follows: ``the occupier must maintain the occupied area as intact and unaltered as possible, without interfering with the customary life of the area, and any changes must be necessitated by the immediate needs of the occupation.''
The agreements involved were the fruits of American diplomatic efforts and have been supported in countless policy declarations over the years.
Against this background, more than 100 Jewish settlements have been established in the occupied territories over the years -- under early Labor governments mainly along the Jordan River Valley; during the seven years of Menachem Begin and the Likud, many in the heart of Arab villages; and six just now authorized by the National Unity government of Shimon Peres.
In addition, Jerusalem has been annexed, civil administration extended to the Golan Heights, and a harsh regime bearing many of the hallmarks of political and economic colonialism imposed on inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Likud government accomplished much of this with a fervor born of religious and national extremism, disdaining American objectives and counter-initiatives with the complaint that Israel was no ``banana republic.'' Yet the de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza is not reversed when moderate governments come to power. Rather, the country merely draws its breath for renewed future efforts.
It goes without saying that the most avaricious trends within Israeli society have been abetted by the perverse policies of Arab leadership in the region, including Jordan, whose kingly evolution toward reason seems always one war too late, and the PLO, which in 20 years has yet to mature from attention-grabbing terrorism to a political strategy designed to achieve its only realistic goal -- federation with Jordan from a state based on the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel cannot be compelled to negotiate with phantoms nor to sacrifice territorial security on behalf of those yet to accept its existence. But American interests would be better served were firmer policies in place to ensure that the occupied territories -- the heart of the controversy -- be preserved for the benefit of their historic inhabitants, that the inhabitants during this difficult interregnum be accorded a measure of dignity and humanity, and that US political initiatives designed to move the parties toward reasonable compromise be accorded a fair and courteous hearing in a country that has become a proud and valuable partner of the United States.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News correspondent in Tel Aviv.