JERUSALEM (May. 17)
Premier Menachem Begin found himself on the defensive in the Knesset today, trying to ward off attacks by the opposition Labor Alignment which holds his government responsible for an “all time low” in Israeli-American relations manifested by the Senate’s endorsement of warplanes sales to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Begin sought to reassure Israelis on one hand that the differences with Washington were only temporary while at the same time communicating to Israel’s friends overseas, especially American Jews, that Israel was angry and alarmed by the planes sales package. The Premier spoke in reply to an urgent agenda motion submitted by the Labor Alignment’s Knesset Whip Moshe Shahal.
The Alignment’s contention is that Begin’s government had allowed relations with the U.S. to deteriorate to a point where Israel was unable to prevent the unprecedented linkage of advanced combat aircraft to Arab states with the supply of planes to Israel.
Begin retorted by claiming that arms sales to Israel were linked with sales to Arab countries in the past, implying that the same had occurred when Labor governments were in office. “The difference between the Labor and Likud governments was that Labor never made a public issue of the sales,” Begin said.
He promised to disclose the details of those earlier deals to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. He said that in the past the U.S. sold more than 100 planes to Saudi Arabia and about 70 to Jordan. Labor MK Haim Barlev, a former Chief of Staff, indicated that the Premier was confusing the issue. He said that previous arms sales to the Arabs never included “the last word in American technology.”
SITUATION WITH U.S. NOT HOPELESS
Begin reiterated that the Americans had reneged on commitments made to Israel more than two years ago to provide it with advanced aircraft independent of any deals with the Arab countries. But, he said, these differences can be cleared up, the situation with Washington is not hopeless and the opposition should not try to create that impression.
The Premier dismissed American public opinion polls indicating that his popularity in the U.S. was lagging behind that of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. He said the only polls that counted were those in Israel which, he claimed, showed a majority of the people supported his government.
SAYS ISRAEL ACTED INDECISIVELY
Shahal accused the government of acting indecisively in its relations with the U.S. “The government needed only eight months to use up its political credit in the U.S.,” he said. The erosion of support for Israel in the American Administration, the Senate and public opinion was unprecedented, Shahal claimed. “In the past there had been tension between Israel and the U.S. but Israel could always rely on the support of the Senate and the American people,” he said.
Shahal stressed the dangers to Israel posed by sophisticated F-15 jets to Saudi Arabia which, he said, make that country a confrontation state. “Yet despite the seriousness of the issue, Begin did not even raise it with President Carter” when he was in Washington two weeks ago, the Labor MK said. “Israel’s position was so confused that even her best friends in Washington were not sure what Israel wanted.”
NEED TO DEAL WITH NEW SITUATION
Defense Minister Ezer Weizman took a more philosophical view of the situation in a speech to the National Religious Party convention in Ramat Gan last night. “The aircraft deal is behind us and now we have to consider what it means in military terms,” he said. He observed that Israel’s duty now is not to argue over what might have been but to devote its energies to deal with the new situation that has developed in the Middle East. “One can cope with the 60 F-15s (to Saudi Arabia), nothing is impossible,” the Defense Minister said, “but we have to think and plan and prepare.”
He said he was not trying to play down the seriousness of the situation but it is not all black. “I recommend that we see it as one stage in which we did not succeed.” Weizman attributed the American Administration’s desire to sell warplanes to Saudi Arabia to U.S.-Soviet competition. He said that when the Soviets were ousted from some Middle Eastern countries, it was inevitable that the U.S. would seek to replace them as a military supplier.
Referring to the military situation, Weizman said that Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt now possess between 6000-7000 tanks between them. With Saudi Arabia scheduled to receive F-15 planes, the Saudi air force will become a factor in Israel’s military planning that did not previously exist.