US-Israeli relations: just the hint of a thaw
After a bitter winter in the United States' relations with Israel, progress in the Lebanon talks could bring a springtime thaw to dealings between the two nations. But on four issues of significance, the two allies have disagreed.
A split between the Americans and Israelis over two major issues - the Reagan peace plan and Lebanese security - has generated much frustration and occasional anger, often concealed from the public view, at both the State Department and White House.
Moving over to the Pentagon, there is open resentment over two other issues that American military analysts consider important: the Israelis' harassment of American marines stationed in Lebanon, and Israeli criticism of a draft proposal from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger concerning the sharing of Israeli intelligence information.
It is on the latter point that the thaw appears already to have begun. In Tel Aviv Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens announced that Israel would share with the US ''technology and tactics'' it used to attack Soviet-supplied military equipment during its invasion of Lebanon last summer.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, most senators and congressmen apparently do not share in the frustration that one senses in the executive branch over Israeli opposition to the Reagan peace plan and the slowness of the Israel-Lebanon negotiations.
But supporters of Israel in both houses of the Congress are expected soon to secure an increase in grant military aid for Israel above the amount requested by the administration.
Congress is, in effect, now entering an election season, a time when senators and congressmen, for domestic political reasons, are inclined to be generous to Israel. What this means to some Reagan administration officials is that their leverage over the Israelis may even now be decreasing. The administration, perhaps for its own domestic political reasons, has not been lobbying against an increase in grant military aid beyond what it has already requested for Israel.
In December, the State Department argued that increases in such grant aid being proposed by the Senate might be considered by the Israelis, and the Arabs, to amount to congressional approval of the Israeli occupation of parts of Lebanon and the West Bank of the Jordan River. But in the end, the House decided to approve $750 million in military grant aid for Israel, compared with the $500 million requested by the administration.
This time around, the administration is requesting a total of $1.7 billion in sales credits for Israel: $1.15 million in the form of loans and $550 million in grants ($200 million below current grants). Today (March 22) the House subcommittee on the Middle East is expected to vote to return to something close to the current $750 million grant level. Staff aides say that the Senate is likely to move in the same direction.
''I don't understand the chemistry of the whole thing,'' says a colonel at the Pentagon. ''The Israelis invade Lebanon and then they end up shooting at our marines. So what does our Congress do? It votes more aid to Israel.''
The Israeli government has rejected allegations that its forces in Lebanon have been harassing the marines. But Defense Department officials are convinced that the Israelis have engaged in a deliberate campaign of harassment, some of it involving ''life threatening'' danger to the marines. They are also convinced that one reason for the campaign is to force the Americans into a closer liaison with the Israelis. The Israelis say that if the relationship were closer, the incidents that have occurred between troops from the two sides could be eliminated.
''The Israelis want us to be seen by the Arabs as walking in lock step with Israel in Lebanon,'' said a Defense Department official.
Anxious not to offend Arab nations, which they want to be part of a continuing Middle East peace process, the Americans want to keep their distance from the Israelis in Lebanon.
Some Defense Department officials are convinced that the Israelis want to use the current negotiations with the US over intelligence sharing as a means to broaden the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States. Several weeks ago, Defense Secretary Weinberger sent the Israelis a terse draft proposal that would have provided for a sharing with the US of Israeli intelligence from the war in Lebanon. According to the biweekly Middle East Policy Survey, Israeli sources have described the Weinberger draft agreement as ''insulting.'' The Israelis were apparently concerned that some of the intelligence information might leak to their enemies once the US shared it with European allies. Defense Minister Arens's announcement in Tel Aviv appeared at first glance to defuse this issue. A Defense Department official described it as ''a step in the right direction.''
But administration officials hope that keeping the US Marines at arm's length from the Israeli forces in Lebanon will make it easier for King Hussein of Jordan to enter into negotiations on the Palestinian issue and the Reagan plan for resolving that issue.
In London on March 19, the King stated that current Israeli attitudes were ''most discouraging,'' and that American credibility is ''passing through a difficult test.'' But State Department officials do not consider this to be the final word from Hussein. They expect him to make some kind of more definitive announcement on the subject of negotiations in the fairly near future. Hussein will first have what he describes as ''critical talks'' this week with Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Friends of Israel on Capitol Hill are arguing, meanwhile, that none of the Arab nations, including Jordan, can be as reliable an ally to the United States as is Israel.