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Middle East: Arabs and Israelis Agreed on a Distrust of Detente : Middle East: Ancient enemies share fear of losing superpower sponsors.

December 17, 1989|G. H. Jansen | G. H. Jansen, the author of "Militant Islam," has covered the Middle East for many years

NICOSIA, CYPRESS — Right now the Arabs and Israelis agree on only one issue: they dislike the rapidly developing rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The reason is obvious--both are afraid that their protectors will settle the Middle East dispute over their heads and then impose the settlement on them. And that would bring an end to the supply of money and of arms from protectors to proteges. The recent process of big-power disentanglement from the Middle East has been speeded-up, preceded by a cooling of relations between the United States and Israel and between the Soviet Union and the Arabs, plus the beginnings of warmth in relations between the United States and the Arabs, through the Palestine Liberation Organization, and between Israel and the Soviet Union.

During the last decade, U.S.-Israel relations had become essentially military in the context of the Cold War, perhaps best expressed by the term "strategic alliance." Israel, for the United States, was a bastion, a forward base, to be protected and maintained and built up for possible use in World War III--hence the U.S. built airfields in southern Israel, improved Israeli ports and facilities, stored supplies and spare parts, cooperated in arms-development and intelligence-gathering. Israel's designated role in the crucial first hours of World War III was to have its air force destroy the Russian Mediterranean fleet. That air force was therefore far more powerful than would be needed to deal with all of the Arab air forces and helps explain the billions of U.S. dollars for Israel's "defense."

Today, merely listing these areas of military cooperation makes the arrangement sound anachronistic and outdated. If, as both U.S. and Soviet leaders have proclaimed, "the Cold War is over," preparations for a hot war are obsolete. As strategic theorists in Israel admit, without the context of a global conflict between the Big Two, the Middle East confrontation becomes just another regional squabble of no particular bipolar significance, like Cambodia, and not even as urgent as Afghanistan. Then Israel's strategic value would be not merely reduced, it would become irrelevant. Commenting on this probability, a recent cartoon in an Israeli newspaper shows a NATO soldier giving this order to an Israeli soldier: "Dismissed." And, in practical terms, if the U.S. defense budget is to be cut, then U.S. arms aid to Israel would also be reduced.

No wonder Israelis are, to put it mildly, worried and throw buckets of icy water on the U.S.-Soviet coming-together. For them it is "precipitate" and "immature" and "specious." A U.S.-Israel distancing would not arise without other policy differences. The United States has been irritated by Israel's handling of the Palestinian intifada, its continuing military relationship with South Africa, its willingness to purloin U.S. secrets and its stalling on the Middle East peace process--particularly on the Baker plan. Meanwhile, Israel is unhappy with the United States--for continuing talks with the PLO in Tunis and for arms-sales to various Arab countries; Israel has tried and failed to stop both activities.

The relationship between the Soviets and the Arabs has always been much less close than the one between the United States and Israel, a difference in both quality and quantity. The Soviet objective has been essentially negative: Realizing that the Muslim Arabs would never "go communist," all the Soviets have wanted the Arabs to do is keep out of the U.S. orbit. What the Arabs have asked of the Soviets is that they continue selling them arms and act as a diplomatic counterweight to the United States, especially in the United Nations.

Both aspirations are endangered by big-power rapprochement. The Soviet ambassador to Syria, Moscow's closest friend and ally in the Arab world (South Yemen is merely a satellite), has said publicly that the Soviets would only provide Syria with the arms necessary for reasonable self-defense and that Moscow expected to be paid for them. So much for Syrian President Hafez Assad's ambition of reaching "strategic equality" with Israel.

One aspect of growing cordiality between Israel and the communist bloc is that the Soviets and their friends have become less critical of Israel at the United Nations and have even abstained on some anti-Israel resolutions. Among the Eastern Bloc countries, only the Soviet Union still refuses to resume diplomatic relations with Israel unless it makes a step forward in its relations with the PLO. Last week the Polish foreign minister felt it necessary to go to Tunis to pay a visit to Arab League and PLO headquarters, to explain why Poland--among other East European countries--was re-establishing relations with Israel.

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