Israel and US square off over sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia
The dangers perceived by Israel in the proposed Us sale of AWACS (airborn warning and control system) surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia are propelling its government toward an imminent head-on confrontation with the Reagan administration.
Israeli skeptics doubt if Prime Minister Menachem Begin's persuasive powers and the reinforcement of publicity through the American media can stop the $8.5 billion arms package from being approved by the Congress. And even if the deal does fall through, they predict, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.
The deterioration of relations between Israel and the US after US-made warplanes wereagainst Iraq's nuclear center near Baghdad and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Beirut -- symbolized by the embargo on F-15 and F-16 jets on order -- might be deepened by an anti-AWACS campaign.
These consideration, however, have not deterred Mr. Begin from pressing his case. He is presenting it personally to Mr. Reagan in Washington during his visit Sept. 7 and 8.
Far from regarding Saudi Arabia as a moderating influence in the Middle East and a helpful factor in restraining oil price rises, Israel's government regards the desert monarchy as extremist and implacably hostile. The Saudis are accused here of:
* Exerting pressure against states with diplomatic links with Israel.
* Mobilizing the Arab world against the Camp David accords of September 1978 and urging a boycott against Egypt for having made peace.
* bankrolling the PLO's terrorist assaults Israel.
* Participating in all of the Arab states' wars against Israel.
An official document made available here quotes Radio Riyadh as saying last March 21 that "Israel continues to be the principal and common enemy enemy of the Arab and Islamic nation. . . . The desire of the region's peoples for peace does not justify any weakening of the nation's need to uproot this danger."
The same document goes on to state that supply of five AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia will enable it to monitor all flights in Israel's airspace and would expose Israel's Air Force to observation day and night, in war and in peace.
It contends that possession of the AWACS planes would enable the Saudis to obtain detailed information about the deployment of Israel's Air Force, its aerial maneuvers, and its degree of combat readiness.
The AWACS planes are not merely flying radar stations, it states. They are airborne command posts capable of directing warplanes into battle. Experts are quoted as rating the AWACS's efficiency as superior.
According to one of the Hebrew press's top military affairs analysts, Zeev Schiff of the independent daily Ha'aretz, Israeli experts are not yet totally familiar with the AWACS's total performance capabilities.
"To learn all of the dangers it raises as well as its weakness and how it can be neutralized it must be studied and examined by experts," Schiff wrote.
"Israel cannot rely on what others, including the Americans, tell it. But from the professional literature and the words of otehrs experts, one can point to a number of principal dangers that Israel will face if Saudi Arabia receives the plane with all its systems."
Schiff proceeds to this ultimate argument:
"The most serious danger which the AWACS planes present -- even if Saudi Arabia participates in a war only by placing its information at the disposal of other Arab states fighting on the battlefield -- is its crisis intelligence activity. This is the most critical possibility and it means a blow to ISrael's qualitative edge, a blunting of its sharpest weapon -- the Air Force."
He suspects that even if American personnel attempt to prevent transfer of data to other Arab states, the Saudis would seize the opportunity to pass it to Arab allies in secret.
Other opinionmakers have been equally critical of the AWACS deal.
The daily Maariv editorialized that the US has been trying to justify the AWACS deal by telling the world Saudi Arabia is a moderate state.
"This, of course, is a gross lie. But this is the lie the American administration must spread," it wrote.
Begin will complain to Mr. Reagan that his government cannot be impervious to the proposed delivery of range-extending fuel tanks for F-15s already in Saudi Arabia, air-to-air missiles, and airborne tankers as well as 12 ground-radar stations and antitank missiles.
He will argue that this hardware will be aimed at Israel and not used against common enemies of the US. But if Begin's views lead to defeat of the $8.5 billion arms package, the loss of prestige for the chief executive could cause long-range diplomatic problems for Israel.