IF RECENT history is any guide, Israel may make a costly error if it agrees to stationing American troops as peacekeepers on the Golan Heights. A decision on American deployment -- as part of a prospective peace agreement between Israel and Syria -- is expected in the near future.
If negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem lead to a treaty, Syria, as a precondition, will demand that Israel totally evacuate the Golan. Such a step would pose a serious security problem for the Jewish state. (This week Syria rejected Israel's offer of a limited pullout.)
When the Golan -- which rises dramatically over the Jordan valley -- was controlled by Syria, a vast area of northern Israel was left vulnerable to attack. The Syrians, lobbing shells from the heights, were able to make life miserable for the Israelis living on the plain below.
That is why the Golan was seized in the 1967 Six Day War. Since then there has been peace and security for northern Israel.
The U.S. State Department, in discussions with the Israel foreign office, has suggested that if a peace accord requires U.S. forces as part of a peacekeeping team, Washington will try to cooperate.
This is a step the Israelis must consider with caution. For more than four decades Israel has essentially entrusted its security to its own forces. Israel consciously never asked Americans to risk their lives in Israel's defense. But, if U.S. forces are deployed to the Golan, what happens if, for example, they are endangered, or suffer casualties at the hands of Arab terrorists? It is predictable that the American people would demand that their soldiers be withdrawn.
Israelis with memories going back several decades have good reasons to be skeptical about pledges of American support. They do not question Washington's sincerity or good faith, but they remember that political commitments can and have been abandoned as conditions change. This applies to the use of multi-national United Nations peacekeeping forces as well. Two examples stand out.
The most recent was in 1983. American soldiers were sent by President Reagan to Lebanon as part of an effort to pressure Israeli forces to withdraw from positions they had taken in Lebanon earlier that year.
The U.S. view was that the presence of American and other Western forces would discourage Arab terrorists from using Lebanese territory as a launching pad for attacks against northern Israel, thus enhancing Israeli security.
But Hezbollah terrorists turned the U.S. commitment into a disaster. A car loaded with explosives forced its way into the military compound, exploded and killed 241 Marines. Not surprisingly, there was a public outcry that resulted in the withdrawal of American forces.
An earlier American involvement was also abandoned, in this case because one U.S. president did not feel bound by the commitment of a predecessor. In 1956, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered a blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, shutting off Elat, Israel's southern port. Jerusalem considered this an act of war and, together with England and France, used its military might to lift the blockade.
President Dwight Eisenhower was furious. He phoned Israel's prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and threatened economic reprisals unless Israeli troops were immediately withdrawn from the Sinai peninsula. The Israelis played for time, hoping Ike would calm down. They argued that their withdrawal would allow Nasser to re-impose the blockade.
The president's solution, after an acrimonious debate, was to pledge that if the post of Elat was again blockaded, the United States would send forces to reopen it. A letter to that effect, signed by Eisenhower, was delivered by Ben-Gurion. The Israeli troops were withdrawn and replaced by a contingent of U.N. peacekeeping forces.
In 1967 Nasser again flexed his muscles. Egyptian troops reimposed the Elat blockade and massed in the Sinai. Under this threat the U.N. troops simply evacuated, leaving Israel facing possible destruction. In the north the Syrians were emboldened and increased their shelling of Jewish settlements from the Golan Heights and launched a full-scale war.
In this desperate situation, Israel's foreign minister Abba Eban called on President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. According to Mr. Eban, Johnson was not aware of Eisenhower's 1956 commitment to Israel. When the president questioned the authenticity of the Eisenhower letter, Mr. Eban suggested it be sent to Eisenhower in Gettysburg, Pa., for verification. Ike did verify it and agreed that the United States had a contractual obligation to live up to the commitment.
Johnson, however, didn't see it that way. He told Abba Eban that conditions had changed since the signing of the letter and that without the participation of U.S. allies there was nothing that could be done.
Fortunately, Israel won the war anyhow, defeating the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. In the process, the Israelis captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
Now the current Israeli government has suggested that Jerusalem trade its defensive position on the Golan Heights for a peace treaty with Syria, based on assurance by the United States that it could provide peacekeeping forces on the heights.
According to polls in Israel, most Israelis want to keep the Golan Heights, even if this means no peace treaty with Syria. Many Israelis remember past commitments from outsiders, especially Abba Eban's 1967 encounter with President Johnson.
Stanley A. Blumberg, with Gwinn Owens, is author of "The Survival Factor," a history of Israeli intelligence.