Washington (Mar. 8)
Confessional opposition developed over the weekend to the Reagan Administration’s announcement that it would ask Congress to approve the sale to Saudi Arabia of part of the equipment the Saudis had asked to enhance the offensive capabilities of the 60-American-made F-15 warplanes they previously bought from the United States. Key Senators served notice they would fight the proposal almost immediately after it was announced Friday.
The State Department disclosed Friday that it would officially notify Congress it is prepared to sell Saudi Arabia extra fuel tanks and an unspecified number of air-to-air Sidewinder missiles, but withhold, pending study and further consultation, refueling-in-air equipment and additional bomb racks along with special surveillance aircraft known as AWACs.
Department spokesman William Dyess said the Administration has “consulted” with Congressional leaders on “this first step” to help “our friends to defend themselves and our interests.”
Dyess acknowledged the Carter Administration assurances to Congress in 1978 when sale of the F-15s were proposed that their combat capability would not be increased, but he noted “the critical fact today is that circumstances changed dramatically.” He pointed to the “danger” of Soviet penetration and exploitation of the region after noting the Soviet entry into South Yemen, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, and the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Two senior state Department officials later said Soviet activity “threatens Israeli security” as well as that of the Saudis. The officials, who asked that their names not be disclosed, said “a new strategy” is needed to meet the “erosion of the security situation” in the Mideast and “block Soviet penetration.”
“The three overriding concerns of our friends,” one official said, “is the threat to the stability in the area, our ability to help our friends and finding an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict to end tension.” As assurance to Israel that her defenses “will remain strong,” the official said that “additional credits” of $300 million in both 1983 and 1984 will be offered to Israel to enable her to buy aircraft and other equipment it needs.
SENATORS DENOUNCE MOVE
Democratic Senators Joseph Biden of Delaware, Alan Cranston of California and Edward-Kennedy of Massachusettes immediately said they were joining forces to rally colleagues in the Senate to defeat the proposal. Congress can reject the proposal by majority vote in the two Houses.
Biden said that a letter will be circulated to Senators after the Administration’s formal notification reaches the Senate toward the end of this month. Formal notification follows Friday’s informal notice by 20 days. Biden said the proposal “needlessly and danger-ously increases the level of armaments in the volatile Mideast.”
Cranston noted “there is no concrete evidence that in the exchange for the equipment the Saudis would support efforts to build a lasting peace in the Mideast through the Camp David process.”
Kennedy said “This new step to increase Saudi offensive capabilities threatens the security of Israel” and “merely seeks to appease the Saudi government which is a sworn enemy of Israel. “He pointed out, “Saudi Arabia is now spending nearly $400 million a year to finance PLO terrorists, it opposes the Camp David peace process, and it continues to undercut U. S. efforts to create a strategic petroleum reserve.”
Addressing the American Jewish Congress’ annual meeting today in New York, Kennedy reiterated this warning and added: “As I have said many times in the past, America must never barter the freedom and the future of Israel for a barrel of oil. Israel has been and will be our strongest friend and our surest ally in the Middle East.”
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D. R. I.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that enhancing the aircraft “will not help the Saudis face any internal threat nor would it be a decisive factor in a conflict with the Soviet Union.”
SERIOUS QUESTIONS RAISED
Among the Republicans on the committee opposing the proposal is Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, chairman of the Middle East subcommittee, who said: “The proposed sale raises serious questions not only about the equipment itself but the overall nature of Saudi Arabia’s relationships with its neighbors and the United States.”
Boschwitz added that “The United States seems to be faced year after year with litmus tests of our friendship with Saudi Arabia when we have proved our willingness to help that country meet its legitimate defense needs with many billions of dollars of arms and thousands of technicians.” Questioning the Saudis’ friendship for the United States, Boschwitz pointed to the Saudis’ opposition to American peace efforts in the Middle East and their continued support for the PLO. Last week, two Republicans, Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon and Rep. Jock Kemp of New York urged Reagan against the proposed sale.