Begin, Reagan: mending fences in Washington
President Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin are finding much to agree on. The first meeting between the American and Israeli leaders opened on an auspicious note, with both sides apparently intent on mending fences.
The only obvious possible source of friction at the outset was Prime Minister Begin's continuing opposition to President Reagan's decision to sell sophisticated AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia.
A senior administration official said that the two men discussed that issue "in depth" in their opening meetings at the White House on Sept. 9. Begin was reported to have presented a report to Reagan indicating that the acquisition of the AWACS planes by Saudi Arabia would constitute a serious threat to Israel's security. But out of deference to Reagan, the prime minister has apparently decided to go easier on the subject in public, stating his opposition without openly lobbying against the sale.
The senior administration official, who spoke on the understanding that he not be quoted by name, said that the entire discussion, including the part which touched on AWACS, was marked by a "spirit of friendship." The Israelis, he said, presented their position on the radar plane sale "quietly and without the slightest note of rancor."
Prime Minister Begin's concern, he said, was that the planes would make Israel "somewhat transparent."
President Reagan, the official said, responded to the Israeli critique, in part, by noting that the United States has "far reaching" interests in the Middle East, an obvious reference to the administration's desire to maintain strong ties with oil-producing Saudi Arabia.
One of the Israeli leader's main concerns, apparently, is that the US has grown too close to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Mr. Begin was prepared to argue , according to persons who saw him recently, that the Americans cannot be sure of the stability of either of those countries.
In order to assuage Israeli concerns, the Reagan administration has prepared a "package" of proposed cooperative defense measures. In addition to those proposed measures which have already been publicized -- joint maneuvers and a greater sharing of intelligence, for example -- the Israelis are reported to want the US begin purchasing more military items manufactured in Israel. According to one estimate, this could bring the Israelis as much as $200 million a year and thus help alleviate Israel's balance of payments problem.
In the long run, the US and Israel could come into conflict once again over the Palestinian issue. But that did not appear to be the case in the first two meetings between Reagan and Begin, which lasted a total of nearly two hours. Aside from expressing its desire to see Egypt and Israel continue their talks on Palestinian "autonomy" on an urgent basis, the administration seems to be undecided, at least at the highest levels, as to how to proceed on this issue.
Egyptian President Sadat has repeatedly indicated that he would like to see the US continue to play a major role as a catalyst and mediator in the autonomy process, as it had under the Carter administration, coming forward with its own ideas. But Prime Minister Begin is reported to want to minimize the US role. The US has yet to name a representative to the autonomy talks, which are to begin once again toward the end of this month.
The senior official said President Reagan and Prime Minister Begin also talked about "strategic cooperation" in the Middle East, the defense of Israel, and the Lebanon situation. "Soviet expansionism" was also a major subject for discussion, he said.
The Israelis were reported to have stressed in the talks that Israel offered the US a combination of advantages in defense cooperation that were unavailable elsewhere: a "modernized infrastructure," a familiarity with the region, and a "compatibility of goals" with the United States.