The latest American delay in delivering jet fighters to Israel is reinforcing a growing perception among both Arabs and Israelis: That Reagan administration policy toward the Middle East is changing, perhaps fundamentally.
The apparent shift in what was initially thought to be a resolutely pro-Israeli administration is encouraging Arab moderates and causing great concern among Israelis.
The Israeli government immediately and vigorously protested Washington's decision, officially confirmed Aug. 11, to delay at least until the middle of next week the delivery of four more F-16 jets and two F-15s. [Daniel Southerland explains what lay behind US decision, Page 9.]
This brings to 16 the total number of aircraft withheld in the past two months -- since the Israeli attacks on Iraq's nuclear reactor (June 7) and Beirut (July 17) using US planes. And Israeli concern is genuine.
"Ours is a partnership. You cannot shake this," an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said of the US-Israeli relationship just before the latest delay. "The Arabs see what you are doing [by holding back arms shipments to Israel] as a way of squeezing Israel. You are making the situation more difficult by going along with them."
The reverse point of view, however, is voiced by many Arabs. "It is for the better, it is promising," says a leading Lebanese political analyst connected with moderate Arab leaders. "Even among the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] there is this beginning of a feeling. Of course, they cannot say it, but they do feel it."
To such Arab moderates there is growing evidence that ties between the United States and Israel may not be as tight as assumed when President Reagan took office six and a half months ago. To be sure, the first few months of the Reagan administration gave little hint of change.
As recently as April 5, Secretary of State Alexander Haig visited Israel and told his hosts: "Israel's well-being is central to our Middle East policy -- central. . . . It is also an ally, whose strength and prosperity are in America's national interest."
But in the past four and a half months, crisis has followed crisis -- each with Israel as a factor -- Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the PLO. Reports from Washington today suggest to those anxiously watching in the Middle East that the US is taking a hard second look at its relationship with Israel. Neither side expects a radical change in US aid to Israel or support for its continued existence, but rather in the traditional unwavering US backing for Israel's Mideast policies.
Analysts here expect that the 16 jet fighters will be released in due course, perhaps soon, and almost certainly before Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's scheduled visit to the United States next month. But Israel currently sees itself as on " good behavior" in the Middle East and officials say they are puzzled about the continued suspension of delivery of the planes.
Moreover, Maj. Gen. David Ivri, Israeli Air Force commander, argues that the "strength" Mr. Haig referred to is being eroded by lack of delivery of the advanced jets.
Israeli Foreign Ministry officials see the US decision in part as pressure to get Israel to drop its opposition to the sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. But, regardless of Israeli objections, many observers including Israeli opposition sources suspect Washington may well go ahead with the sale to the Saudis of the five AWACS planes and offensive equipment for F-16 fighters. Should the US at that time still be denying deliveries to Israel, they say, it would be a glaring sign of the gulf between Washington and Tel Aviv.
In addition, Egyptian officials said Aug. 11 they are on the verge of winning agreement from the US to accelerate delivery of some 60 F-16s and other sophisticated military equipment. Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali said President Anwar Sadat's visit to Washington the past week "achieved all of its objectives," including the new arms contracts.
Daniel Southerland reports from Washington:
State Department officials said that the President would make a final decision on the delivery of F-15 and F-16 fighter planes to Israel early next week.
Middle East specialists in Washington are for the most part assuming, however , despite the further delay, that the planes will eventually go to Israel, probably before the arrival here early next month of Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
These specialists say that it would have been untimely to announce a resumption of fighter plane deliveries to Israel just after the departure from Washington of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. Sadat, here for talks with President Reagan on Aug. 5 and 6, had been embarrassed by Israel's recent attacks on Iraq's nuclear reactor and on the city of Beirut.
The attacks, coming even as Sadat was continuing to strengthen his new ties with Israel, appeared to cause further damage to his position in the Arab world. American planes were used in both attacks. Specialists say that a "decent interval" after the Sadat departure is now required before the US resumes shipments of F-15 and F-16 fighters to Israel.
Some Defense Department officials are also reported to be hoping to use the delay in fighter plane shipments as a bargaining chip with the Israelis. They are said to be proposing that the US offer to resume shipments if the Israelis, for their part, drop their opposition to the proposed sale of American AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. But one specialist warned that this is the kind of bargaining which will not work with Israel's Prime Minister Begin.
"It would be a misreading of Begin to think he's going to give in on the AWACS," said William B. Quandt, former Middle East director on the National Security Council staff and a veteran of the 1978 Camp David negotiations with the Israelis. "Begin knows that he's going to get his planes at some point. He also knows that the dynamics of this country work to push the President to cave in on a thing like this."
If the Reagan administration does decide to use fighter plane deliveries as a bargaining weapon with the Israelis, it will not be a wholly unprecedented action. In 1975, then- President Gerald Ford, angry with the Israelis over a lack of progress in talks on a Sinai disengagement agreement with Egypt, suspended new military and economic agreements with Israel.
In the end, however, the Israelis did what they have traditionally done. They went to their influential friends in the US Congress for support. On May 21, 1975, 76 US senators sent a letter to Ford urging him to be responsive to Israel's needs. Ford lifted the pressure on Israel.
Meanwhile, State Department spokesman Alan Romberg said that delivery of two F-15 fighter planes which were scheduled to go to Israel on Aug. 11 and four more F-16 fighters which were to go on Aug. 14 were being delayed. This was the first time that the US has suspended delivery to Israel of F-15s. These $26.4 million interceptors are larger and more capable in some regards than the less expensive, $13 million F-16s.
Romberg said that the criterion for blocking the F-15 delivery was the same as it had been for not sending the F-16s, namely a desire not to introduce "high visibility aircraft" into the volatile Middle East.