Why did Islamic fundamentalists in southern Lebanon kill a U.S. Marine colonel and threaten to kill other American hostages in retaliation for the kidnaping of one of their leaders by the Israel army? They have held at least three Israeli soldiers prisoner for several years, yet their vengeance was turned against the United States rather than Israel. Do they perceive Israel as the client of the United States, or is America the client of Israel in their view?
The reaction of the fundamentalists to Israel's strike at their base in Lebanon underscores a widely held perception in the Middle East--that Israel and the United States are intimately linked in an alliance closer than any other two countries. Few Arabs or Iranians will take seriously statements by the U.S. government that it does not approve of, or was not involved in, the kidnaping escapade--especially after the Iran-Contra affair exposed a deep collusion between Jerusalem and Washington in that "arms-for-hostages" scheme.
How real or how extensive is this collusion, and which nation, Israel or the United States, holds the greatest leverage over the other? It has long been established that American intelligence services operate as closely with their Israeli counterparts as with any of our Western allies. There is little, if any, information passed by Washington to British or other European intelligence agents that Israel does not also receive, either through official or other channels.
Yet the relationship with Israel is more than special. It is unique. Israel receives by far the largest amount of American foreign aid, in both absolute terms and on a per-capita basis. Egypt, the second largest recipient of American assistance, receives its huge allocation largely as a reward for signing the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Relations between the United States and Israel have been frequently strained since the intifada began in December, 1987. But there has never been the slightest hint by either the Reagan or Bush administrations that economic or military assistance would be diminished an iota.
Last year several members of the House and the Senate, all traditional supporters of Israel, took the unusual step of publicly criticizing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir for his policies in the West Bank and Gaza and for his negative response to then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz's peace proposals. Yet none was willing to cut economic support. A co-chairman of one congressional subcommittee criticized Israel but opposed cutting aid because, he reasoned, Israel needed the reassurance that such aid would provide after it had been shaken by the U.S. decision to open talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization in December.
Yasser Arafat used to call Israel the "spoiled child" of America. Yet last year he led the PLO through its greatest policy change toward Israel since the organization was established 25 years ago. A major reason for Arafat's turnabout was his belief--one widely held in the Middle East--that the United States and Israel are so intimately linked that the demands of one become the wishes of the other. Like the Shiite fundamentalists in Lebanon, he believes that either convincing or hurting the United States can convince or hurt Israel. If we persuade Washington to alter its policy either through diplomacy or by threats and force, we can influence Israel, they argue.
Israelis, of course, perceive the situation differently. The Israeli government has great expectations of the United States and is deeply disappointed, even chagrined, when Washington publicly castigates it or, in exceptional circumstances, votes against it in the United Nations. While the Israeli government expects perfect accord with Washington on Middle East matters, its leaders often complain that public criticism of its free-lance actions, like the kidnaping of the Lebanese Shiite leader or the bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1982, is interference in their country's internal affairs. Often these officials explain away U.S. reaction, insisting that what Washington condemns in public it applauds in private. Nor do they regard their advice to the powerful Israel lobby on Capitol Hill as interference in American domestic affairs, but rather as support for what is in the best interests of the United States.
Which nation, then, does hold the greatest leverage over the other, Israel or the United States? Is it appropriate for Washington to interfere in, influence or criticize Israel's "internal affairs" and vice versa? Should Israel keep the United States "informed" about--or clear in advance--operations like the Lebanon kidnaping? These are all questions about which most American policy-makers are still undecided. But Middle Easterners believe they have been answered--that Israel and American policy dealing with their region of the world is indistinguishable, that each country knows what the other is about to do and that Washington's criticism of Israel is merely a smoke screen to cover actions turned over to Israel because they do not accord with U.S. policy or with the public image of American mores.