Selling AWACS to the Saudis: Reagan timing may be critical
President Reagan is maneuvering through a political and diplomatic mine field by coming down on the side of Saudi Arabia in the sale of the controversial airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) aircraft.
Israel and its supporters in Congress are bound to oppose Mr. Reagan's decision, reported by the White House on April 21, to sell the Saudis five of the advanced radar planes, designed to scour the skies for signs of military activity.
Israel claims the sale would weaken its defenses by putting into potentially hostile hands a sophisticated weapon able to monitor activities within the Jewish state itself.
Saudi leaders bitterly oppose Israeli occupation of Arab lands, including the West Bank, Gaza, and -- above all in Saudi eyes -- Jerusalem.
Congressional leaders warn that Congress might veto the President's proposed AWACS sale, especially if the arms package is presented before Israeli national elections on June 30.
Aware of the political pitfalls, Reagan -- according to deputy White House press secretary Larry Speakes -- has not decided "how or when [to] proceed with Congress for approval."
The rest of the arms package for the Saudis -- notably fuel tanks and missiles to "enhance" F-15 fighter jets ordered by Saudi Arabia -- had been expected to clear Congress, despite Israel's disapproval.
Israel officials had indicated they would not dissipate political goodwill with President Reagan by opposing this part of the weapons sale. Israeli opinion hardened, however, when the five radar planes were tacked onto the package.
Saudi officials, meanwhile, refuse to dismember the package by deleting the ultramodern AWACS planes. They claim a commitment to sell them was made by the Reagan White House.
Close ties with the Saudis are important to the Reagan administration for two reasons:
* Saudi oil policy -- maintaining high production to stabilize oil prices and thwart hardliners of the OPEC oil cartel -- is helpful to Americans.
* Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. urgently needs Saudi support for his planned buildup of US military strength in the Middle East and Persian Gulf area to counter Soviet influence.
These factors, presumably, influenced Reagan in his decision to include the AWACS aircraft in the package he ultimately will send to Congress.
To kill the deal, both houses of Congress must pass resolutions of disapproval by simple majority within 30 days after the White House notifies them of the impending sale.
Deferral of such notice, possibly until after the Israeli elections, might be viewed by White House official as an acceptable compromise -- assuring the Saudis of US dependability, while keeping the issue out of the superheated Israeli election campaign.
The problem erupts just when Reagan needs maximum support from his congressional supporters to pass budget and tax measures tailored to his economic program.
White House officials, while professing a "no compromise" stance, appear to be working with congressional leaders to shape a budget package that Democrats can accept.
The last thing the President wants in the midst of these delicate negotiations is a foreign policy fight with Congress, in which some of his staunch Republi can allies might desert him.