Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab states are expected to be displeased with the Reagan administration's decision to strengthen US military ties with Israel.
But in the end, this increased cooperation with Israel may help President Reagan gain approval in Congress for his proposed sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. Many observers in Washington see the strengthened links with Israel as a form of "compensation" to Israel for the radar planes. US and Israeli officials do not acknowledge this to be the case, however.
At the end of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's talk with President Reagan in Washington Sept. 9 and 10, both sides disclosed that they have decided to increase their cooperation in the military and intelligence fields. The specifics of this cooperation have yet to be announced. Israel's defense minister and the American secretary of defense are to hold further talks on the specifics.
By turning the issue over to the US Defense Department, Mr. Reagan may have retained some leverage over the Israelis. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has been consistantly more critical of Prime Minister Begin's actions in the Mideast than Mr. Reagan or Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr. This might mean that the administration will agree to some of the specifics of defense cooperation only if there is parallel progress, on the diplomatic front, toward a Middle East peace.
Some Defense Department officials are reported to be reluctant to expand military ties with the Israelis. They fear that it will harm US relations with a number of Arab countries. As one defense analyst put it: "The senior professional military men are very sensitive about this. They know that for as long as they're going to be on active duty, the Arabs have what we want most -- oil and a better strategic location than Israel."
At a press conference following his final talks with President Reagan, Mr. Begin reiterated his opposition to the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. He declared that the acquisition of such planes by the Saudis constituted a danger to Israel's security. He denied that cooperative defense measures now under discussion with the Americans amounted to any form of compensation for the sale of the AWACS planes.
But the impression has been growing in Washington that the Israelis have indeed softened their opposition to the sale, realizing that Congressional approval is inevitable once President Reagan begins vigorous lobbying for the sale.
Israel's defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was described, meanwhile, as confident that Israel could cope with any problems which might be created for Israel by the radar planes.
Prime Minister Begin made clear that new defense cooperation with the United States would not extend to the use of American troops to defend Israel. In a departure statement at the White House, he said: "As far as the defense of Israel is concerned, it is our problem. We will never ask any nation to send its soldiers to defend us. Our Army will do its duty."
Begin warned of the danger of Soviet "expansionism" and said that on this issue, the US and Israel will work together and plan together.
A senior US defense official said, however, that as of yet no formal commitments had been made to Israel and that he could not predict what formal agreements would result from increased cooperation with Israel. Among those measures under consideration were joint US-Israeli military maneuvers and the "prepositioning" of US military supplies in Israel.
Secretary of State Haig will have a chance to explain all this shortly to Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Mr. Haig is to meet with Prince Fahd on Sept. 12 in Malaga, Spain.
Mr. Haig may also want to ask further clarification of Prince Fahd's recent statement endorsing United Nations resolutions on Mideast peace. The Saudis have continued to reject the Camp David framework for peace set in motion by the Carter administration and further supported by Mr. Reagan. The Saudis have said this framework does not offer enough to the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.