Israelis vexed by AWACS vote - but relieved, too
Israelis voiced concern over both the political and military implications of the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia as the nation reacted to the United States Senate vote.
At the same time, however, some Israelis expressed relief at not having humiliated the Reagan administration. And others even began to calculate how Israel might eventually be compensated, politically and/or militarily, for the AWACS deal.
The government, which held a special meeting to discuss the sale, reacted relatively mildly. Prime Minister Menachem Begin personally read a government statement to the press expressing ''sorrow'' at the AWACS sale to a country which is in a state of war with Israel.
''A grave new danger has arisen for Israel,'' Mr. Begin said. ''We will do all that we must to overcome it.''
The government praised those who had opposed the sale in the United States for their ''courageous fight.''
Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition Labor Party, noted that the sale had not been made conditional on Saudi Arabia changing its opposition on the Camp David peace process. ''Saudi Arabia emerges from this battle as the leading nation in the Middle East in the eyes of the United States,'' he said.
Communications Minister Mordechai Zipori, who had been acting defense minister in the last government, said that Israel had a limited financial capacity to absorb comparable sophisticated weapons that could offset the Saudi armaments.
''It could be that we will have to think about our security needs for the future and take a different approach than we have till today,'' he said. Although Mr. Ziporri did not mention nuclear weapons, Israeli strategists in the past have suggested that Israel might have to adopt a nuclear option when it can no longer match conventional Arab armaments at what they consider a reasonable proportion.
Defense Minister Ariel Sharon said that he assumed that Israel would find the answer to the military threat posed by the AWACS and other weapons systems sold to Saudi Arabia. He warned, however, that the sale of such sophisticated weapons to the Arabs would permit them to narrow the technological gap between them and Israel.
Reserve Brig. Yehoshua Bareket, former commander of Israeli Air Force Intelligence, said the AWACS would strip the Air Force of its ability to stage surprise attacks. He said the Saudis would be able to monitor Air Force tactical training and observe preparations for special operations.
Many Israelis had expressed concern before the vote about the likely adverse impact on American-Israeli relations if the AWACS sale were defeated. The Senate vote was greeted by them with a mixture of both regret and relief.
Zvi Rafiah, former counsellor at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said that Washington was more likely to act generously toward Israel following the administration's victory. He suggested that this was a propitious time for Israel to pursue negotiations on strategic cooperation with Washington.