The law and the planes
US Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced the lifting of the ban on shipments of American warplanes to Israel at a press conference held in Los Angeles on Aug. 17. The ban had been imposed on June 10 following the bombing by Israeli aircraft of Iraq's nearly finished nuclear reactor of June. 7. The planes used by Israel is that attack were made in the US and supplied to Israel by the US government.
At the same time the US government informed the Congress of the attack it announced the initial ban. It said that it would review the question of whether the use of American aircraft in that attack violated American agreements with Israel.
During the press conference a reporter asked Mr. Haig whether during the review a determination had been made as to whether the Israeli raid on Iraq had been defensive or offensive in character. Mr. Haig replied, "It wasn't necessary to make a legal or juridical decision."
The document governing the use of weapons supplied by the United States to Israel is the Mutual Defense Assistance Act. It was signed by Israel and the US in July of 1952. It has not since been amended or repudiated. Hence it is presumed to be as valid today as the day it was signed. The act reads in part:
"The Government of Israel assures the United States Government that such equipment, materials or services as may be acquired from the United States under the MDAA [Mutual Defense Assistance Act] are required for and will be used solely to maintain its internal security, its defense of the area of which it is part, or in United Nations collective security arrangements and measures, and that it will not undertake any act of aggression against any other state."
Behind the 1952 agreement with Israel is an Arms Export Control Act which was last amended by Congress in 1976. It requires the administration to inform the Congress if a violation of any arms supply agreements "may have occured." It prohibits sales or credits to any country if either the President or the Congress issues a finding of substantial violation."
If President Reagan had applied the written record to Israel as literally as he applied it to the air traffic controllers it is difficult to see how he could have avoided applying further penalties on Israel for the attacks on the Iraqi reactor and the apartment houses of Beirut.
Air traffic controllers sign an oath not to strike against their employer, the government. When they went out on strike, they lost their jobs. Israel's government signed a formal international agreement not to use US equipment for offensive purposes. When Mr. Begin bombed well outside his own frontiers, he got a slap on the wrist.
Prime Minister Begin claims that Israel had to destroy the Iraq reactor for "self-defense." He also claims that the massive Israeli air raid on Beirut on July 17, during which an estimated 400 Lebanese were killed and many more wounded, was also in "self-defense."
The essential facts about the two Iraeli raids are not in question. The targets in both cases were well outside the boundaries of Israel and outside "the area of which it is a part." There are no United Nations "collective security arrangements" which Israel has been asked to support.
There is a difference of opinion over whether those raids could be construed as being in self-defense. Mr. Begin so contends. The President of the United States has by implication half accepted that claim by releasing the impounded warplanes so soon that the ban had no practical punitive effect. It is hard to find anyone outside the ranks of Mr. Begin's more extreme supporters who claim those actions to be anything other than offense, not defense.
The truly serious question is whether Mr. Begin is to be allowed to resume military actions outside his own borders, using weapons provided by the US for his own purposes even when those purposes conflict with the national interests of the United States.
That is what he did when he attacked Iraq with which the United States had been seeking improved relations. That is what he did when he raided Beirut, the capital of a country with which the US has long enjoyed friendly relations and which it is trying to protect now from all those who are trying to break it up.
Mr. Begin denies that there are many restraints on his future use of American weapons. He denies that there is any "secret" agreement behind the lifting of the ban on the planes.
That may not be the case. Secretary Haig said in his formal announcement that the review which preceded the lifting of the ban included "candid discussions" with Mr. Begin and his ambassador in Washington. Mr. Begin's surface bravado may be for his own domestic political audience. It seems almost incredible that President Reagan could truly allow Mr. Begin to resume his habits of using American weapons at will.
It would be a sad day indeed both for peace prospects in the Middle East and for US interests in the Middle East if Mr. Begin still has a green light from Washington to bomb as he pleases.