ARE the United States loan guarantees that Israel needs to help its flood of new immigrants a political matter - or merely humanitarian?Many American Jewish leaders have said the loans are strictly humanitarian. These leaders have tried to avoid any hint of linkage between provision of the guarantees and the behavior of the Israeli government. (Some of them were horrified when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir first requested $10 billion in guarantees. According to reports in the Washington Jewish Week, they begged Mr. Shamir to take a back seat to their efforts to secure the guarantees on humanitarian grounds.) Of course, the challenge of building new lives for Jews fleeing Soviet lands has a strong humanitarian appeal. But so does the challenge of building a hopeful future for 4.2 million Palestinians suffering from occupation or dispersion; or a project to give aid to 18 million victims of South African apartheid; or the hundreds of millions of other folks throughout the world - and at home - who could use a helping hand. There is one particular reason, however, why Jews fleeing former Soviet lands might rightfully expect American taxpayers to give them special treatment. In the early 1970s, the US Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which made normalization of relations between the world's two nuclear megapowers conditional on Soviet Jews winning the right to free emigration. So perhaps there is a commitment implied there, to help Soviet Jews find their feet once they finally win this right. (Absorption of these migrants could be cheaper if Jews were allowed, as most might prefer, to come to the US rather than to Israel. But Shamir was against giving them that freedom of choice. His aim was always closer to the ideology and politics of settling Jews in "Greater Israel" rather than meeting their own, merely "human," preferences.) Even if we concede that Jackson-Vanik puts the US under a humanitarian obligation to help Soviet Jews, US taxpayers and government officials still can't ignore the political dimension of aiding Jews in their rehabilitation. Are we doing them a favor if we give them material aid under circumstances offering little chance for a peaceful future? Are we doing them a favor if we help them while Shamir's government continues to deny their Palestinian neighbors the most basic rights of control over land and res ources? We saw what the Shamir government did with previous loan guarantees - the $400 million given last October. First, Foreign Minister David Levy signed a promise that those monies would not be spent in lands not held by Israel prior to 1967. Then, within days, he backtracked and said that was no constraint on massive Israeli building in the enlarged Jerusalem area. Did some Americans hope that by treating Shamir's government with the generosity implied by the guarantees, his government might in turn ease the harshness of military rule in the occupied territories? As my teenagers would say, "Dream on!" What has happened to Palestinians in the occupied areas since last October has been more of the same: a clamp on economic opportunities, debilitating curfews, press curbs, arrests, and an accelerated program of land expropriation. We have no reason to expect that by giving Israel the loan guarantees its behavior will be any different. President Bush has done well by requesting that consideration of these emotion-charged guarantees be delayed for 120 days. By January, we should know if the Israeli government has made a good-faith first contribution to the peace talks. If so, then by the first of the year we could be planning for a very different Middle East: a Middle East known for problem-solving rather than arms racing and deadly wars, and by cooperative regional development rather than boycotts and endless reliance on external aid. Under these circumstances, with the old enemies beginning to talk business and build confidence, then $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel could turn out to be a good investment. But giving them would still be a political, not just a humanitarian, decision.