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Administration in Intensive 11th-hour Lobbying Effort to Win Senate Votes for Its Plane Sales Deal

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With the Senate due to vote tomorrow on President Carter’s controversial Middle East warplanes sales package, the Administration was engaged over the weekend in an intensive 11th-hour lobbying effort to garner the votes necessary to defeat a resolution of disapproval.

In a letter sent to each member of the Senate last Friday, Carter warned that rejection of his proposal to sell advanced jet aircraft to Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia “would be a devastating blow” to the peace initiative of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and a setback for the forces of moderation in the Middle East. He said essentially the same thing in an interview with a group of editors at the White House Friday.

At the center of the controversy is the projected sale of 60 F-15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia, thereby strengthening the arsenal of that oil-rich nation with the most sophisticated and, probably, the best combat plane of its type currently operational. That aspect of the package is the most bitterly opposed by Israel and its friends on Capitol Hill, who regard F-15s in Saudi hands as a direct threat to Israel.

Yesterday, however, the State Department made public a letter to Carter from King Khalid of Saudi Arabia declaring that he sought the American jets for purely defensive reasons to blunt “recently stepped-up Communist expansion in the area.”

OUTLOOK FOR NEXT ROUND

The Administration won the first round in the battle Thursday when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee split 8-8 over a resolution of disapproval, thereby killing it. But Carter was denied the decisive victory he had hoped for when the panel voted unanimously to send the entire package to the full Senate. The Administration and many of its supporters in the Senate had been trying to avoid a further devisive debate on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Administration lost one vote when Sen. Alan Cranston (D.Calif.) said Friday that he has changed his mind and will vote against aircraft sales. He told a news conference that it made no sense to him to supply nearly 200 advanced warplanes to the Middle East when the area is trying to reach a peaceful settlement. He discounted possible Saudi economic reprisals against the U.S. if the sales failed to materialize and dismissed arguments that other countries would sell advanced arms to Saudi Arabia. “To do something just because somebody else would do it shows no leadership, no principles,” he said.

The legislative possibilities now involve the following: both houses of Congress must disapprove the aircraft sale by May 28 in order to block it. If the Senate rejects the disapproval resolution tomorrow or decides not to take action on it, the sale automatically takes effect since there would be no vote of disapproval.

Should the Senate reject the sale, the issue will go to the House where the International Relations Committee is scheduled to vote on it Tuesday. If the committee rejects disapproval, as its Senate counterpart has done, the aircraft sale will become legal. It is not considered likely to be taken to the House floor because of the short time left for debate. Should the House and Senate split on the issue, the sale will go through because disapproval by both chambers is necessary to kill it.

Administration spokesmen expressed confidence that they have enough votes in the Senate to clinch the deal. “The President remains confident the Senate will also respond in a courageous and responsible way,” White House Press Secretary Jody Powell said after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tie vote. He praised the “courage and statesmanship” of the eight committee members who supported the Administration.

CARTER SAYS CHOICE IS STARK

But most observers believe that the outcome in the full Senate hinges an a few key votes and could go either way. The Administration apparently was taking nothing for granted. In his letter to the 100 Senators, Carter said: “The choice is stark and fundamental. Shall we support and give confidence to those in the Middle East who work for moderation and peace? Or shall we turn them aside, shattering their confidence in us and serving the cause of radicals?”

Carter maintained that rejection of the sale to Egypt of 50 F-5E jets would be a “breach of trust. Such a rejection would be a devastating blow to President Sadat, to the military forces of Egypt, to the people of Egypt and to the forces of moderation in the Middle East,” he wrote.

The President argued further: “The long-term interests of Israel are served by the proposed sales to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is in Israel’s interest to encourage the forces of moderation in the Middle East and to promote their close relationship with the United States. It would not serve Israel’s interests if we were to fail to keep a bipartisan commitment made by the prior Administration as well as by mine to provide aircraft for the defense of Saudi Arabia. It would be against Israel’s interests if moderate nations are brushed aside by the United States, opening vast possibilities for the intrusion of hostile influences.”

THE ISSUE OF SADAT

In discussing the matter with editors at the White House later, Carter said: “One of the most important issues is what will happen to our relationship with President Sadat. He has taken a…pre-eminent stand in searching for peace in the Middle East at great danger to himself politically and after separating himself from the Soviet Union on the sale of arms….I think if the (planes) sales are rejected, it would be a terrible blow to President Sadat, to his country and to our relationship.”

The President reiterated, “It is in Israel’s best interests for us to be trusted by and have friendship with the moderate Arabs….We don’t want to drive them away from us and have them turn to other sources.”

In an interview published today in the Chicago Tribune, Sadat warned that “if this deal is refused by the Senate and Congress, it will mean that you don’t reciprocate the trust we have in you…and we shall not be able to convince any Arab man in the street that the United States and President Carter can stop Israel.”

Sadat also criticized Carter’s offer to recommend the sale of 20 additional F-15 jets to Israel. “You have provided them with the most sophisticated arms, to the extent that they would need mercenaries to come in from outside to work them,” the Egyptian leader was quoted as saying. However, he said he would continue to reject the demands by hard-line Arab states to break off the peace process he initiated and said he remained optimistic that a settlement with Israel was still possible.

KHALID’S RATIONALE FOR PLANES

In his letter to Carter, King Khalid wrote: “Saudi Arabia’s long delayed need for the planes has become a matter of pressing urgency because of the continuing and recently stepped up Communist expansion in the area. I would like to emphasize that the planes are being acquired for defense and Saudi Arabia is continuing to make every effort in pursuit of a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement in the Middle East….I believe the Kingdom’s long and increasingly close relationship with the United States is, even with all of its proven mutual benefits, still at only an early stage of reciprocal worth.”

Although Khalid’s letter did not elaborate, that remark was seen by same as a veiled allusion to Saudi efforts to moderate the rise in the price of oil.

The Saudi ruler also appeared to be objecting to certain limitations imposed by the U.S. on the use and deployment of the F-15s in order to make the package deal more palatable to the Senate. He wrote, “As far as I am concerned, why should Saudi Arabia be the sole country to have a condition imposed on it?…We are just as much threatened as anybody.”

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