New York (Sep. 7)
Secretary of State Alexander Haig said discussion of the proposed U.S. sale of AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to Saudi Arabia “will come on probably early in the meeting” between President Reagan and Israeli Premier Menachem Begin in Washington Wednesday “and will be disposed of rapidly.”
He said he thought “The President will understand Israel’s natural concerns about any enhancement of Arab capabilities, especially in a neighboring Arab state” but that the AWACS sale “is in America’s strategic interest” and “although difficult for Israel to accept, we feel it meets their interests as well.”
Haig made his remarks in the course of an exclusive interview with the New York Times, published yesterday coincidental with Begin’s arrival in New York with a large entourage of aides, including Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and his chief autonomy negotiator, Interior Minister Yosef Burg.
STRATEGIC CONSENSUS IN THE MIDEAST
In reply to questions, Haig stressed that the U.S. continues to pursue a “strategic consensus” in the Middle East and that it recognized “there have been some fundamental changes since Camp David in the whole Middle East environment and situation.”
He said that “one of those changes is now an interrelationship which has developed between the situation in Lebanon and the peace process, which while on totally separate tracks, are increasingly interrelated, and a failure or a collapse of one can have a serious impact on the other; whereas progress in one contributes to an atmosphere of progress in the other.”
Haig said that the strategic consensus in the Middle East, “still in embryo but nonetheless existent,” was saved from “collapse” by the efforts of U.S. special envoy Philip Habib to resolve the Syrian missile crisis. “That involved harnessing leadership and support from the Arab League, and with considerable help from Saudi Arabia not only in leadership and diplomacy but in resources which catalyzed certain processes,” he said.
CRITICIZES ISRAEL’S ACTIONS
Haig added that “the whole process was severely jolted” when Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor last June and by “the subsequent increased violence along the border of Israel which involved Palestinians, the PLO and the Israeli forces.” Nevertheless the consensus “managed to sustain itself in a very shaky way by some very skillful work by Phil (Habib) to produce a cessation of hostilities,” Haig said.
Haig said the nature and extent of U.S. participation in the autonomy talks which Israel and Egypt have agreed to resume Sept. 23 on the ministerial level has not yet been decided. “There is still some uncertainty about this meeting in terms of location. We will participate, in any event, at whatever appropriate level we decide upon, and that should not be done until we have a little more information from both parties,” Haig said. He added, “One of the outcomes of the Begin visit, we hope, is for a sharpening of our thinking on that subject.”
TWO ASPECTS TO BEGIN’S VISIT
Haig said there were two aspects to the Begin visit. “We would want to discuss the peace process under the Camp David framework and specifically the autonomy talks… And the second part, clearly, will be on the Lebanon process, which is far more complex because of the multiplicity of interest in parties involved.”
Haig said that “another final point” on the agenda of the Begin meeting is “a discussion of the bilateral relationships in the sense of the period ahead in a changing situation–strategic concerns– and whether or not we are going to reaffirm. There’s been a lot of rhetoric in the past and I think both sides are interested in putting some meat on the bone for that rhetoric with respect to our bilateral strategic relationship,” Haig said.
He said, in reply to questions that he was not talking about a defense treaty with Israel but “about practical cooperation…that will contribute to regional security.”
CONVINCING ISRAEL ABOUT THE AWACS
Asked how Israel could be convinced that the AWACS sale would be in its own as well as American
interest, Haig said, “First and foremost, it brings America’s presence.” In that connection he observed that Israel has been “the bastion, and a rather lonely bastion historically, toward Soviet inroads in the Middle East. Historically, the United States has been somewhat less than that, and so in that context, this AWACS, the American presence with respect to it–even though being in a sovereign nation (Saudi Arabia) –should be owned with sovereignty in mind. It couldn’t expect to be otherwise.”
He added: “It is a manifestation of, among a number of other steps that we are considering with the RDF (Rapid Deployment Force) and not bases but facilities. That’s a very important argument.
“Another very important argument is that it is in Israel’s interest for someone else to provide Saudi Arabia with assistance, and we don’t think so.”
Before departing for the U.S. Sunday, Begin told reporters, “We are going to the U.S. with open hearts to hold talks with President Reagan and his advisors on international problems and most important bilateral questions. We hope these talks will be as customary between friends who have nothing to hide from each other, who speak openly and put forward their requests and questions. We hope they will end in a positive manner, for the good of both parties.”