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Reagan’s Withholding of Jets to Israel Evokes Angry Responses from Israeli, U.S. Jewish Leaders

April 4, 1983
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

President Reagan’s assertion that he will not approve the scheduled delivery of 75 F-16 jet fighter-bombers to Israel until Israel withdraws its forces from Lebanon because “while these forces are in the position of occupying another country … we are forbidden by law to release those planes,” drew angry responses from Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders over the weekend.

Reagan, who made his remarks in reply to questions from the audience after he delivered a televised speech on arms control in Los Angeles last Thursday, did not say explicitly that Israel violated the terms of its arms sales agreements with the U.S. under which American weapons can be used only for defensive purposes.

State Department deputy spokesman Alan Romberg stressed to reporters Friday that the President’s decision did not mean that he has determined that Israel’s operations in Lebanon violated that law. He added, however, that while Israeli forces remain in Lebanon “concerns arise as to whether it will be consistent with the spirit of the law” to go ahead with the delivery of the aircraft. (See separate story.)


Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said in a radio and television interview in Jerusalem Friday that the President’s remarks were “very regrettable.” Shamir maintained that the U.S. “knows very well that we entered Lebanon to defend ourselves from the murderous attacks of the Palestinian terrorists who were using Lebanon as their base.”

He added that the U.S. also knows Israel has no territorial claims on Lebanon and wants to withdraw its forces. “But Israel’s security requirements to prevent Lebanon from again becoming a terrorist base must be met,” Shamir declared.

A Foreign Ministry official called Reagan’s statement “most unfortunate” because “the notion that our forces are in occupation is erroneous because our action against the Palestine Liberation Organization was an act of legitimate self-defense.”

Shamir claimed that Reagan’s remarks came at a time when Israel and Lebanon were “close to agreement,” implying that an agreement may now be hampered. Shamir did not elaborate. The Israel-Lebanon-U.S. negotiations, which began four months ago, were deadlocked last week over the issue of security arrangements in south Lebanon.

Israel demands that its ally, Maj. Saad Haddad and his Christian militia, remain in control of security in the region after Israeli forces withdraw. The Lebanese government, backed by the U.S. refuses to assign any such role to Haddad.


Reagan spoke in Los Angeles several days after his special envoy to the Middle East, Philip Habib, returned to Washington, apparently to report on the impasse in negotiations.

As is frequently the case with Reagan, he made his remarks in the course of an impromptu question-and-answer session rather than in a formal statement. The President was asked why the planes had not been delivered to Israel in view of the Soviet military build-up in Syria, including the deployment of long-range SAM-5 anti-aircraft missiles.

Reagan replied: “You must realize that under the law — the law exists now — those weapons must be used for defensive purposes, and, this is again, one of the obstacles presented by the stalemate in Lebanon.” He added:

“While those (Israeli) forces are in the position of occupying another country that now has asked them to leave, we are forbidden by law to release those planes, and it’s as simple as the other forces returning to their own countries and letting Lebanon be Lebanon.”

The President reiterated what he has said on several previous occasions, that “Israel can only know real security if it doesn’t have to remain an armed camp far beyond what its size warrants.” The goal of his Mideast policy, he said, was “to create more Egypts,” meaning more Arab states ready to live in peace with Israel.


Julius Berman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said: “We are deeply distressed by President Reagan’s statement which can only encourage Soviet adventurism in the Middle East. By conditioning the delivery of the long-promised F-16s on Israel’s political behavior in Lebanon, the President is acting not only against Israel’s ability to defend itself from Arab aggression but is jeopardizing the U.S. — Israel alliance, on which both peace and stability in the Middle East depend.”

Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said the President’s assertion that the U.S. is forbidden by law to release the aircraft because American weapons must be used for defensive purposes “does not accord with the facts. Israel’s operation in Lebanon was a defensive act, aimed at eradicating the PLO’s ‘state within a state’ in Lebanon.”

He called on the President “to rescind a decision which undermines America’s interests no less than Israel’s security at a time when the Soviet Union is rushing huge quantities of offensive weapons to radical Arab states.”

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, warned that “continuing to withhold the planes will not help to defend the cause of freedom nor will it advance our country’s strategic interests. To require that Israel must withdraw from Lebanon before it receives the F-16s is to punish our democratic friend and ally, Israel, for meeting the fundamental responsibilities of every government to protect the lives of its citizens and preserve its national existence which was the purpose of operation ‘Peace for Galilee,'” Schindler said.

Kenneth Bialkin, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said Reagan’s statement was “neither fair to Israel nor productive toward the goal of freeing Lebanon of foreign forces.

“Israel’s decision to go into Lebanon last summer, as the Administration then recognized, was the result of PLO terrorist attacks and arms buildup in the south which posed a direct threat to northern Israel. In other words, clearly defensive. The fact that Israeli forces are still there, reflects the complicated process of finding real security in southern Lebanon to prevent a recurrence of terrorism and of finding a way to get Syrian and PLO troops out as well.”

Ivan Novick, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he was “surprised” that “at this crucial juncture the President would take an action which undermines the strategic viability of an ally and which further foments division between the two democracies.” He urged the Administration to review its “dangerous approach.”


Reagan’s action is not without precedent. After Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, the President held up delivery of 14 F-16s and two F-15s, informing Congress that Israel might have violated the arms sales agreements.

In June, 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and conducted daily bombing raids on Beirut, the Administration held up delivery of the 75 F-16s which are now at issue. The aircraft had been promised to Israel in 1978 to compensate for U.S. weapons sales to Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Administration has since refrained from giving Congress formal notification of the sale, as required by law before the planes can be delivered.

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