US mending Mideast fences
The Reagan administration's plans to strengthen American cooperation with Israel are causing alarm in Arab nations friendly to the United States. ''It is a matter of deep concern,'' says Clovis Maksoud, a Lebanese who is chief representative here from the 22-nation League of Arab States.
Dr. Maksoud argues that the administration, by apparently leaning even more than previously in favor of Israel through increased aid and other forms of cooperation, may undermine its ability to ''broker'' a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Concern has also been voiced by a leading diplomat from Saudi Arabia, a key oil-producing nation with which the US has close ties. In a speech delivered at Georgetown University on Nov. 22, Saudi Arabia's new ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, warned of what he described as a growing skepticism in the Middle East about America's ability to bring about peace in the region.
The warnings came on the eve of Yitzhak Shamir's first visit here as Israel's prime minister. Mr. Shamir met with President Reagan Monday at the beginning of a two-day series of meetings which is expected to result in enhanced US-Israeli cooperation in a variety of fields. Lebanon was expected to be the focus of the talks.
On Thursday, Lebanese President Amin Gemayel meets with Reagan to present his ideas for resolving the Lebanon crisis. As the 1984 presidential campaign approaches, some Reagan administration officials are reported to be arguing that a way must be found to withdraw the American marines now stationed in Lebanon before the middle of that election year. Polls indicate that many Americans oppose the marines' presence in Lebanon and fear that it could lead to a wider conflict.
The warming in US-Israeli relations comes after a lengthy period of strains involving Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, its invasion of Lebanon, the siege of Beirut, and former Prime Minister Menachem Begin's rejection of President Reagan's Sept. 1, 1982, proposal for a comprehensive Middle East peace. The upturn in relations appeared to begin in May of this year when Secretary of State George P. Shultz negotiated an agreement between Israel and Lebanon on the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Shared concern about Syrian ambitions appears to be the main factor bringing the Americans and the Israelis closer together. But Arab diplomats, such as Clovis Maksoud and Prince Bandar, indicate that political considerations may also be at play. By strengthening ties with Israel and accommodating Israel's requests for more favorable terms for aid, President Reagan could win points with the influential American Jewish community which might be useful during a reelection campaign.
What Prime Minister Shamir most desires at the moment, it appears, is agreement on more favorable terms for American aid and on enhanced ''strategic cooperation'' with the United States. The latter might include joint US-Israeli naval maneuvers and the stockpiling of American supplies in Israel.
On the aid question, there seems to be little doubt here that Israel will receive more favorable terms. Administration officials have indicated that the US would be amenable to increasing economic aid to Israel and to converting much of the loan segment of military aid into outright grants. Israel now receives about $1.7 billion a year in military aid from the United States. It is divided equally between loans and grants. A conversion to more grants would take some of the heat off Israel's hard-pressed economy.
But when it comes to the question of increased strategic cooperation with Israel, there may be some countervailing forces at work. Senior officials at the US Defense Department are not enthusiastic about this concept of cooperation, partly because it might alienate Arab nations friendly to the United States. According to the Middle East Policy Survey, which is well informed on such matters, the Pentagon has been accepting strategic cooperation with Israel in principle while working to limit its application.
But the concept is one that comes naturally to President Reagan. Unlike some Defense Department officials, the President has long regarded Israel as a strategic asset. In August 1979, long before he took office, Reagan argued that the fall of the Shah of Iran had ''increased Israel's value as perhaps the only remaining strategic asset in the region on which the United States can truly rely.
''Other pro-Western states in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf kingdoms, are weak and vulnerable,'' Reagan wrote at the time in a commentary for the Washington Post. ''Israel's strength derives from the reality that her affinity with the West is not dependent on the survival of an autocratic or capricious ruler. Israel has the democratic will, national cohesion, technological capacity and military fiber to stand forth as America's trusted ally.''
But aside from Pentagon concerns, there are continuing US-Israeli disagreements that may put a brake on the strategic cooperation agreements now in the making. Prime Minister Shamir made it clear in advance of his trip here that he will not agree to a freeze on Israel's settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. Such a freeze was part of President Reagan's 1982 peace plan. One Israeli official involved in planning the Shamir visit said the Reagan plan is likely to arise during Shamir's talks here only in a ''pro forma'' way.
In his speech last week, the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar, said many Arabs have grown skeptical, even cynical, about America's Middle East policies because of the ''vast and increasing economic and military aid'' provided to Israel. Bandar said the Saudis continue to believe that the US is the nation most capable of resolving the Middle East conflict but that the Saudis are in a minority in the region.
Both Prince Bandar and Mr. Maksoud, the Arab League representative, argue that the US has been rewarding Israel's ''rejectionism.''
''This leaves Israel with no incentive to budge from its basic positions . . . on the settlements, on the Golan annexation, and on its procrastination in the south of Lebanon,'' said Ambassador Maksoud in an interview.
''Israel is trying to discredit those Arab governments which are friendly to the United States,'' said Maksoud. '' . . . It is trying to transform the Middle East into an arena of cold-war confrontation between the superpowers. It portrays the Arab states as unreliable, or radical, or Soviet-backed.''