Iraq's aggression, U.S. help to Saudis fuel growing concerns within Israel


WASHINGTON -- The United States was constrained t reassure Israel last week that it would defend it if Iraq attacked, but the two countries disagree on how to contain Saddam Hussein's long-term threat and on several key issues that almost ensure some continued strains.

That U.S. officials needed to make their pledge at all was a measure of the nervousness within Israel and among its U.S. supporters.

Since Iraq invaded Kuwait, both U.S. and Israeli officials have seen it in their interest for Israel to assume a low profile. This allowed the United States to knit together an Arab coalition, dominated by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, operating in concert with the United States and other allies.

Israelis, too, "know it's in their interest," said a State Department official. "They want to see Saddam Hussein contained, and the best way to do that is to keep the Arab consensus together." Israeli involvement would cause this consensus to "wobble," the official said.

But this has subordinated the U.S.-Israeli "strategic alliance" that had been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy and had served to broaden Israel's support among conservatives in the United States.

Other Israeli worries include:

* A huge Saudi weapons buildup. Israelis feared that not only was the initially proposed $21 billion U.S. sale to Saudi Arabia far beyond what was required by the gulf crisis but also that the weapons could wind up in the hands of Israel's enemies.

* The new strategic relationship between the United States and Syria, long one of Israel's main opponents.

* A U.S. goal of creating a long-term security structure in the Middle East that would strengthen Persian Gulf states that have not made peace with Israel.

The immediate prelude to the U.S. pledge to help Israel was Iraq's threat last week to attack Israel, together with gulf oil fields, if it were strangled by United Nations sanctions.

Some U.S.-backed Arabs discounted the threat, saying that while it would be popular among Arab masses, the certainty of a devastating Israeli counterattack would make it militarily foolish.

But Israelis, citing Mr. Hussein's unpredictability, took the threat seriously. They also have complained that the United States has been too slow to pledge additional advanced military equipment to counter both the Iraqi threat and the Arab buildup.

In the U.S. view, neither the new relationships forged in response Iraqi aggression nor the disagreement over Israel's current military needs should have raised a question about U.S. backing for Israel.

Cemented by military, cultural and emotional ties, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has long been underscored by a U.S. commitment both to Israel's security and to its qualitative military edge over Arab statesthat have refused to make peace with it.

The Bush administration has maintained this commitment. But to a greater degree than previous top officials, President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have gone public with their exasperation over Israel's perceived foot-dragging in making peace with Palestinians and over its continued settlement of the occupied territories.

After Mr. Baker's meeting last week with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, a spokeswoman for Mr. Levy said they had started "building up frank and reliable relations."

Agreement was said to be near on terms for a $450 million U.S. housing loan guarantee to aid Israel's settlement of a continued influx of Soviet Jews.

But depending on how the gulf crisis ends, strains could be renewed on how to deal with Iraq.

Both the United States and Israel see Iraq, with a chemical and biological weapons stockpile and nuclear ambitions, posing a long-term threat to the region even if it is forced to withdraw from Kuwait. But Israelis have openly asserted that Mr. Hussein needs to be removed from power, while the United States has refrained from going that far.

U.S. officials say that Mr. Hussein's security apparatus is so tight that he could be removed only by one of his closest advisers. They instead have advanced the idea of a tough non-proliferation policy's being forced upon Mr. Hussein that, together with a regional security structure, would diminish Iraq as a threat.

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