Washington pulls closer to Israel to put pressure on Syria
In a move designed in part to counter Syria, the United States is strengthening its ties with Israel. What this means in specific terms has yet to be worked out. But it clearly could point to:
* Increased technological aid to Israel's aircraft industry.
* Conversion of all foreign military sales credits to Israel into grant aid.
* A lifting of restrictions on American aid to Israel in order to allow more of these funds to be spent in Israel itself instead of in the United States.
The move toward closer US-Israeli cooperation seems to represent a victory for Secretary of State George P. Shultz over Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who has argued that a strengthening of military ties with Israel might create strains in American relations with moderate Arab Nations.
The shift toward closer ties with Israel also marks a reversal of the attitude that prevailed in the administration in mid-1982. At that point, during Israel's invasion of Lebanon, the Reagan administration distanced itself from the Israelis and even suspended plans for the delivery of cluster bombs and fighter planes. But Secretary of State Shultz and other officials have grown increasingly frustrated with Syria in recent months and have been searching for ways to put greater pressure on Syria to agree to a peace settlement in Lebanon.
Shultz and other officials apparently felt that Israel's recent partial withdrawal of forces in Lebanon took some of the pressure off Syria, leading the Syrians to believe that time was on their side. The US now apparently hopes to see the Israelis take a more active role in the region, thus increasing the leverage over Syria.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is expected to visit Washington at the end of this month or in early December to discuss new areas of cooperation between the US and Israel. Lawrence S. Eagleburger, the US undersecretary of state, visited Israel last week for wide-ranging talks with leading Israeli officials, including Mr. Shamir.
In a briefing for reporters Monday on the subject of cooperation with Israel, a senior administration official said that there was very little indication that Syria was seeking a ''reasonable solution'' in Lebanon. The official said that the US and Israel shared a concern about added deliveries of missiles by the Soviet Union to Syria and about the ''hard line'' being taken by Syria both in Lebanon and at the Geneva talks among the parties to the Lebanon conflict.
The senior official said that what was required in Lebanon, aside from a balance of power, was ''a clear sense of US will and determination.'' He added that there also needs to be ''a clear sense in Syrian minds that the Lebanese parties . . . have decided that in the last analysis peace in Lebanon is better for them than a divided Lebanon with outside forces telling them what to do.''
The official argued that it was possible to have ''strategic cooperation'' with Israel without causing a strain in relations with Arab nations. But he said that the subject had not been discussed with the Arabs.
During his visit to Israel last week, Undersecretary Eagleburger informed Prime Minister Shamir that President Reagan has decided to permit Israel to use military sales credits provided by the United States for research and development work on the planned new Israeli fighter plane, the Lavie. US Defense Department officials had previously argued that it would be more economical for the Israelis to buy or co-produce an American fighter than it would be for the Israelis to try to develop another fighter of their own.
Officials at the Northrop Corporation have objected to aid for the Lavi on the grounds that it may eventually be used in export competition with Northrop's F-20 fighter. Northrop got no US government assistance in funding its research and development work on the F-20.
In return for increased technological aid to Israel and improved terms for the aid that is provided, the Reagan administration hopes to secure greater Israeli cooperation in countering Soviet and Syrian moves in the Middle East. The administration also hopes to see Israel soften its opposition to Reagan's initiative of Sept. 1, 1982, aimed at a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. It would also like to see the Israelis drop their opposition to a planned Jordanian rapid-deployment force to be used to aid US forces in the event of a major crisis in the oil-producing Gulf.
But some experts contend that despite what senior administration officials are saying, certain forms of increased cooperation with Israel would create dangerous tensions in US relations with key Arab nations.
Richard B. Parker, a former ambassador to Lebanon who now edits the Middle East Journal, said that a simple increase in aid to Israel will not make much difference in Arab attitudes, because the Arabs already consider the US to be solidly committed to Israel. But he said that any indication that the US was more closely identifying itself with Israeli military aims in the region and was entering more formal military agreements with the Israelis would alarm moderate Arabs.
Mr. Parker said, for example, that a prepositioning of American military supplies in Israel, should that be agreed upon, would be strongly opposed by such Arabs, as would any move which made it appear that the US was trying to use Israel as its surrogate in Lebanon.