WASHINGTON (May. 20)
Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban reportedly warned Secretary of State William P. Rogers at a meeting here this afternoon that the Soviet presence in Egypt has significantly altered the power balance and makes more imperative than ever Israel’s need for additional Phantom jets. Mr. Eban met with Secretary Rogers after arriving from a brief official visit to Canada. The Israeli diplomat reportedly enumerated these factors to substantiate Israel’s claim that the military balance in the Mideast has been changed to its detriment: The construction of Soviet-made SAM-3 anti-aircraft missile launchers operated by Russian personnel at Alexandria, Cairo and the Aswan High Dam; evidence that Soviet combat pilots have been flying operational missions over Egypt in Egyptian MIGs; evidence that the Russians have begun building SAM-3 sites in the Suez Canal zone which Israel considers absolutely vital to the defense of its Suez Canal lines. While U.S. officials question the latter evidence, the U.S. has confirmed the activities of Russian pilots through independent intelligence sources.
Mr. Eban’s visit to Washington is intended to press the Nixon administration once more for a favorable decision on Israel’s long-standing request for 50 additional Phantom jets and other military planes. In March, the administration announced it would hold in abeyance sale of planes. Israel still retains decisive aerial superiority over the Arabs. But the introduction of SAM-3s and Soviet pilots into Egypt since then caused President Nixon to order “an immediate and full evaluation of all intelligence reports” to determine whether the balance was altered. That evaluation is still in progress. According to informed sources here, administration officials are split over whether Israel really needs the planes and whether it will be in America’s best interests to provide them.
Some high ranking officials directing President Nixon’s review have reportedly reached a consensus favoring the jet sales. Their view is said to be shared by Undersecretary of State Elliot Richardson. But no recommendation has been made yet to President Nixon. Other U.S. officials discount the reports of Soviet escalation in Egypt and insist that Israel still enjoys a sizable superiority in air power despite the Russian build-up of Egyptian air defenses. These officials also caution the administration to take seriously President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s May I warning that the further delivery of Phantoms to Israel will destroy what remains of American influence in the Arab world. (Egypt officially denied for the second time in two weeks that Soviet pilots were flying defensive missions over Egypt. Ahmed Amis, a government spokesman, issued the denial at a press conference in Cairo today when he was questioned by a Japanese newsman about the “widely circulated facts” concerning the presence of Soviet pilots. Mr. Amis said, “I should emphasize that since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war we have never denied the presence of Russian experts here. But we stress that not only is the Russian effort defensive but the Egyptian military effort is also of defensive nature.”)