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Iran affair: scoping out Israel's role

ONGOING revelations about the Iran arms scandal paint a picture of Israel's involvement that grows more intimate and decisive with each passing week. This is disturbing to all serious Middle East-watchers, no matter what their viewpoint. Supporters of Israel, for example, fear that confirmation of a major Israeli role in instigating, executing, or perpetuating the exchange of arms for hostages - already an indelible blemish on the Reagan presidency - will result in vicious scapegoating of Israel. Meanwhile, those who favor better US relations with the Arab world are stunned at how completely the Reagan administration based this initiative on Israeli judgments, and fear that US credibility with the Arabs is irretrievably lost.

Both reactions are justified, and steps must be taken to ensure that the worst fears of both groups are not realized. Israel should not be blamed for the decisions that compromised US foreign policy. American officials were responsible for, and made, the decisions that brought on the current sorry state of affairs.

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But concern for important US interests in the Arab world requires the fullest possible exposition of the degree to which Mr. Reagan's advisers relied on Israel's advice, intelligence, analysis, and logistical support. The probability that the administration's failure to distinguish its own interests from Israel's was at the center of its ``mistakes'' must be addressed.

A case can be made that Israel's role in this initiative was indispensable. But no one seems to be asking how this US dependence on Israel evolved in the first place.

The gradual substitution of Israeli objectives for American ones in the Middle East appears to have begun a few years ago, in Lebanon. During its invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982, Israel was allowed to run roughshod over three critical American diplomatic initiatives: (1)a 1981 cease-fire brokered by Philip Habib which prevented any fatalities along the Lebanese-Israeli border until Israel invaded; (2)an August 1982 cease-fire (also arranged by Mr. Habib), by which the PLO left Beirut but which Israel shattered when it went into west Beirut after its ally, Bashir Gemayel, was killed; and (3)President Reagan's Sept. 1, 1982, Middle East peace plan, which the government of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin summarily rejected on Sept. 2. Each Israeli action seriously damaged the capacity of the United States to pursue peace in the Middle East. The US responded to these events by increasing its aid to Israel by more than $400 million before the end of the year.

This sequence of Israeli actions and American inaction seems to have effectively killed off independent and credible US diplomacy in the Middle East. Subsequent US initiatives were based primarily, if not exclusively, on Israeli objectives and assumptions. The first of these, George Shultz's May 17, 1983, accord for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, collapsed when Syria simply refused to buy it. Later, when Israel began to withdraw from Lebanon, the Reagan administration moved into the breach and committed the battleship New Jersey and the US Marines in support of Israel's Lebanese allies. The rationale for these decisions - Lebanon's declared ``strategic'' importance - was valid from Israel's perspective but not from America's, a fact demonstrated by the Marines' departure from Lebanon only days after Reagan made this pronouncement.

Since Lebanon, the centerpiece of US Middle East policy has been the obsession with terrorism. Secretary of State George Shultz has explicitly espoused the terrorism doctrine of Israel's Jonathan Institute, i.e., ``the root cause of terrorism is terrorists,'' and denies that unresolved political dilemmas (like the Palestinians') encourage terrorism. So instead of regenerating the Middle East peace process, the Reagan administration bombed Libya. While the attack was undeniably a catharsis for Americans, its debated pretext, the extensive collateral damage and loss of innocent lives, and the emphasis on military force replayed point by point some of the most disturbing aspects of Israel's Lebanon invasion.

In short, when National Security Council consultant Michael Ledeen went to Israel in spring of 1985 to seek help toward an opening to Iran, the way had long since been cleared for US policymakers to adopt whatever suggestions Israel would give. Also, although Mr. Shultz chose to remain ``out of the loop'' on the Iran initiative, he cannot avoid culpability altogether. His earlier embrace of Israeli approaches, particularly to terrorism, guaranteed the acceptability of Israel's new influence at the highest levels of the Reagan administration.

Finally, it is important to reemphasize that the mistakes were American, not Israeli ones. Israel cannot be faulted for pursuing its perceived interests with intense, even admirable persistence. Rather, fault lies with US decisionmakers who let the line separating US and Israeli interests erode and, finally, disintegrate.

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Frederick W. Axelgard is a fellow in Middle East studies, Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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