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Israel Mulls Strategic Role

Concern rises that nation's value to US could diminish as superpowers reassess political alliances and redeploy military forces. RETHINKING POST-COLD-WAR WORLD

LIKE the rest of the world, Israel has watched with absorbed interest the dizzying changes taking place in Central Europe. But mixed with enthusiasm over the dissolution of Europe's communist regimes is a growing, still largely unarticulated fear that the apparent end of the cold war could pose an eventual threat to the security of the Jewish state.

At root is the concern expressed by some Israeli officials and commentators that Israel's value to the United States as a strategic asset in containing communist expansion in the Middle East may soon diminish.

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It comes at a time when Israel's tough response to the two-year Palestinian uprising has weakened the other leg of the US-Israeli relationship - the sense of shared moral values.

Several private and government analysts agree that the combined effect of the easing of superpower tensions, low oil prices, and the end of the Gulf War could diminish Israel's strategic value while ``marginalizing'' the importance of the Mideast in general.

One specific concern is that any diminution of the US-Israeli strategic alliance could weaken its deterrent value in the eyes of potentially hostile Arab states.

Another is that if the thaw leads to a cutback in the US military presence in Europe, the ability of the US to guarantee Israeli security - as in 1973 when a massive airlift of US supplies saved Israel during an Arab-Israeli war - will be foreshortened.

``If the US retreats back to its own shores, its ability to save Israel against an Arab war coalition will be diminished,'' says Dore Gold, an expert on US policy at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

But these analysts add that several factors will delay and minimize the security implications of changing superpower relations:

The potential effects on US-Israel strategic relationship will be offset by parallel developments between the Soviet Union and Syria - the Soviets' principal Middle East ally and Israel's principal Middle East adversary.

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Soviet leaders have reportedly warned Syria to abandon its goal of strategic parity with Israel, which it would need to launch an offensive to recapture the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967.

In the future, Soviet arms sales to Syria will be governed by the principle of ``reasonable defensive sufficiency'' and will take into account ``the limits of our capabilities,'' Alexander Zotov, the Soviet ambassador to Syria, told the Washington Post recently.

The potential easing of the Syrian threat is matched by changing attitudes of other Arab states. They now turn to moderate Egypt for regional leadership and, after 40 years, have come largely to accept, if grudgingly, the existence of the Jewish state.

Analysts note that the US is unlikely to abandon old commitments while the international order is in a state of flux, while Soviet military power remains formidable, and while a premium on political stability in the region remains high because of Western dependence on Middle East oil.

They add that as military ties with old European allies are relaxed, Israel could actually become strategically more important to the US, because of its port facilities used by the Mediterranean-based Sixth Fleet and even as a future site for a US air base.

``With arms control in Central Europe, the flanks become more important to the defense of Europe and to US power projection in Europe and the Middle East,'' says Dr. Gold.

The successful space rocket launch by Iraq last Thursday also shifts the military picture in the region. The launch indicates Iraq has intercontinental ballistic missile capability.

Close ties between the US and Israel have not only been a function of strategic considerations but of strong support for Israel in Congress and a determination to protect Israel against larger Arab armies.

``It's a military/economic relationship that wasn't closely coupled to the strategic situation on the ground,'' says Gerald Steinberg, a specialist on US-Israel strategic relations at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. ``Thus it doesn't necessarily follow that the relationship will be cut back severely just because the US-Soviet relationship is changing.''

Although close military ties between Israel and the US have existed for years, it was during the Reagan administration that the US elevated Israel to the position of strategic asset.

Cooperation between the two countries has flourished in the areas of intelligence sharing, joint military exercises, arms sales, and the joint development of weapons systems. At the same time, Israel is a base for prepositioned US supplies that would be needed to fight a conventional war if radical Arab regimes threaten Israel and moderate Arab countries.

Israel now receives one-fifth of total US development, economic, and military aid, amounting to $3 billion annually.

If a stable world order emerges that poses no major threat to US interests in the Middle East, the US may eventually de-emphasize its relationship, analysts say.

Such a readjustment is unlikely to jeopardize Israel's security. But the resulting cutback in US military spending would hurt Israel's economy. The US annually purchases $1 billion in defense-related items from Israel. Combined with the easing of regional tensions, which threatens to make large inroads on Israeli arms sales, the decline in superpower tensions could be a serious blow to a country that has 20 percent of its industrial work force in military-related production.

Anticipating these developments, some Israeli defense firms are already seeking ways to diversify to nonweapons production.

``Is Israel no longer going to be the tripwire against approaching communists? The answer is `yes,''' says Harry Wall, Israel director of the Anti-Defamation League, referring to the implications of global changes on US-Israeli relations. ``But Israel is a stable democracy in a highly unstable part of the world. That has to count for something.''

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