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The US and Israel

THE relationship between the United States and Israel has survived other trying times - the invasion of Lebanon, the Jonathan Pollard affair - and it will probably weather the current turbulence too.

The ties between the countries are rooted in shared cultural and political traditions. Though Israel's favorable rating in US opinion surveys has been slipping, substantial numbers of Americans continue to have a positive view of Israel. The chances of an open rift - with a cutoff of the billions of dollars in aid that flows from the US to Israel each year - are nil.

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Still, tensions have mounted. The newest strain comes from allegations that Israel has broken written agreements by transferring Patriot-missile and other sophisticated military technology given it by the US. Such charges aren't new, but in the past Washington has smoothed them over. It's difficult to police what an ally does with such technology. And the Israelis, more than most recipients of US weaponry, have the intellectual and industrial tools to replicate or modify the items they receive.

Israel's government says the allegations are false and has opened its facilities to US inspection. The US should say that from now on it intends to enforce restrictions on the reexport of technology.

This bump in relations would be minor if it didn't feed larger tensions over US loan guarantees and Israeli settlement policy. The Bush administration has refused to approve even part of the loan guarantees unless the Shamir government agrees, at the least, not to break ground for any new settlements in the occupied territories.

Minus this stance, President Bush's commitment to a land-for-peace resolution of the Middle East conflict would be hollow.

Will US firmness on this issue convince Israelis that Washington can't be trusted and turn them again to the Likud's hard-line leadership in the June elections?

Or will it force Israelis to examine more closely whether unfettered settlement-building is more important to their country's future than progress toward peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs?

The cold-war rationale of a strategic relationship has largely dissolved. But the US should make it clear that it remains a friend of Israel's, interested in its security and in helping it realize its considerable economic potential. The criticisms coming from the administration should be constructive, not angry.

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The US should make the argument that its position on the peace talks and the settlements is intended to benefit Israel in the long term, no less than the Arabs.

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