Israel now has an unusual opportunity for a discussion with the United States about upgrading relations in a new framework. The close relationship between the Sharon government and the Bush administration, the renewal of the political process with the Palestinians and the upcoming U.S. elections combine to give Israel an opportunity it should not miss.

Proposals for upgrading the relationship have been raised in the past within the context of the compensation Israel might get for a withdrawal from the territories and peace agreements with the Arabs.

The common denominator in all those plans was that they were handled by the defense establishment, which advanced its preferred agenda: military aid in the billions, access to advanced technology, weapons systems and intelligence, and guarantees to preserve Israel's nuclear capabilities. There was a lot of deliberation on the question of whether Israel needed a defense treaty with the U.S., to enhance its deterrence, but that would also shackle the Israel Defense Forces' freedom.

Given the strategic reality of 2003, it's time to refresh the "shopping basket." Israel is no longer alone against an Arab and Iranian threat. Security and stability in the Middle East is now a top American priority and U.S. forces are deployed an hour's flight from Tel Aviv. The war in Iraq made tangible America's desire and ability to grant Israel a defensive umbrella in exchange for vetoes over Israeli actions.

Now it's time to expand the framework of the dialogue and talk with the Americans about a "civilian upgrade" in the relationship. Israel needs to seek an improved status that would give Israeli citizens and companies freedom of movement, labor and commerce in the U.S. and add the tiny Israeli economy to the strong U.S. dollar bloc.

In recent months there were proposals to add Israel to the European Union, as a full partner or as an associate member with extra rights. The initiator of the EU idea was Benjamin Netanyahu, who believes a small country with a small economy will find it difficult to exist between the large blocs. His call, which was echoed positively in Europe, has yet to be seriously considered. Israel has geographic, historic and economic proximity to Europe, but its relations with America are much deeper and are based on common values and a common worldview, as well as the existence of the large Jewish community in the U.S. If Israel is considering joining Europe, which has on occasion been hostile to it, why shouldn't it prefer the friendly coast of America.

The formula for upgrading the relations should keep Israel a sovereign Jewish state that has a unique relationship with the U.S. As opposed to joining the EU, which is based on states giving up a measure of their sovereignty for the sake of the common framework, the U.S. has no such built-in structure. The U.S. has "free association" agreements with three island nations in Oceania - Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. The three are committed to coordinating their foreign policies with Washington (which is why they support Israel in the UN) and they get defense and economic aid from the U.S. Micronesian citizens are eligible to live and work in the U.S. without the need for a "green card," but they do not enjoy preference for immigration and citizenship. The dollar is the legal currency in the islands.

It's not nice to admit, but Israeli-U.S. relations operate in a similar manner: the foreign policies are coordinated, under Washington's instructions, and the military and economic aid to Israel is far greater than that to tiny Micronesia. Formally institutionalizing the relationship would secure it for the long-run, give a boost to the Israeli economy, improve deterrence - and free Israelis from the suspicious questions of the immigration officials at Kennedy Airport.