Jerusalem (Mar. 2)
— The Cabinet was split yesterday on how Israel should respond to the apparent decision by the Reagan Administration to sell sophisticated equipment to Saudi Arabia for its F-15 fighter planes. Premier Menachem Begin described the impending sale as “painful and regrettably” but suggested that the Cabinet postpone any action until Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s return. The Cabinet decided to continue the discussion after hearing Shamir’s full report on his visit to Washington.
The matter was raised after acting Foreign Minister Moshe Nissim briefed the Cabinet on Shamir’s talks with President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig last week. Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, Education Minister Zevulun Hammer and Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai urged Israel to mobilize its friends in the U.S. Senate and House to block the sale, especially if it included extra equipment to improve the combat capabilities of the Saudi F-15s.
Sharon insisted that if the government accepted the decision without raising loud objections, the Americans would take it as a sign of acquiescence in the deal. Nissim, Interior Minister Yosef Burg and Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Zipori, took an opposite view.
Burg warned that if the Saudis did not get arms from the U.S. they would turn to other sources of supply less friendly to Israel. Nissim quoted Shamir as reporting that he had been told in Washington that the Reagan Administration felt it could not go back on undertakings entered into by the previous Administration and there was therefore no way to stop the arms deal now. The Carter Administration had in fact promised not to provide the extra equipment.
Sharon claimed that the failure of the Administration to invite Begin to Washington to meet with Reagan before Israel’s elections June 30 constituted “interference in Israel’s internal affairs.” According to Sharon, the lack of an invitation could be used by the opposition Labor Paty in their election campaign to discredit the Likud government. Begin replied that the U.S. had other priorities and Israel was not its first concern at the moment. He added that he had not been led to expect that he would be invited to Washington before the Knesset elections.