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Scene from Washington: Ominous Signs of Israel’s Weakening Influence, Growth of Arab Pressure

May 17, 1978
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The Senate’s confirmation last night, by a 10-vote margin, of President Carter’s Middle East warplanes package, ominously portends a visible weakening of Israel’s influence at the Capitol and a commensurate growth of persuasion with the Congress that the Arab governments already have with the White House.

The consequences of the struggle between the Carter Administration and supporters of Israel are seen as encouraging the White House to take further initiatives that will create “new realities” bearing an issues such as Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Arab territories and the creation of a Palestinian “entity” for “a just peace.”

News reports from Jerusalem today indicate that Israelis feel a sense of betrayal over the Carter warplanes package and some contend that both the Begin government and the American Jewish community have been deficient in promulgating Israel’s program for peace.

Actually, the media tide in favor of Arab perceptions of a peace settlement has been flowing with increasing breadth for 15 months. On the aircraft issue, the major American media, including top television commentators, leading newspapers and news magazines, have been siding with the President’s proposal, observing that Arab oil is paramount and implying that Jewish considerations are in the backwash.

Repercussions flowing from Carter’s 54-44 victory in the Senate point to an increased division between his Administration and Israel and its American supporters. The voting, after 10 hours of intensive debate, including two hours when classified material relating to the impact of the aircraft sales on the military balance of power was discussed in closed session, found 28 Democrats and 26 Republicans supporting the aircraft package and 33 Democrats and II Republicans opposed. Two Senators were absent for the vote.


“We have put the Israelis in doubt as to a 30-year-old commitment,” Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R. NY) told reporters after the Senate voted. “I am going to look for evidence now that the result will be a hardening of the Arab line. It will be more difficult to bring about a peace settlement,” he said.

Sen. Clifford Case (R. NJ) denounced the vote outcome as devastating to Israel’s morale and called the Administration’s action “one of the worst mistakes our government has made in a long time.”

Sen. Joseph Biden (D. Md.), who introduced the resolution disapproving the planes sales in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, said the vote represented a “defeat for a sound policy, a setback for a negotiated settlement in the near future. I don’t know why Israel would move toward constructive negotiations,” he said.


Sensing the bitterness induced by the stunning defeat for Israel’s backers, the White House modified its initial statement that the President was “delighted” by the vote in a longer, formal statement issued later designed to mollify the losers and avoid the appearance of gloating over the Administration’s victory.

The statement said that President Carter was “deeply gratified by the Senate’s decision” and promised to “intensify our effort to help the parties narrow their differences” in the Middle East. The statement pledged that Israel “will continue to have the unwavering support of this Administration and the American people.” The President also noted that the Senate “vote strengthens our ties with moderate Arab nations who share our goal of peace and stability in the region.”


The Saudi Arabian Ambassador, Ali Abdullat Alireza, who led the intensive lobbying effort for the aircraft sales in which his country’s leaders participated, said “We are very gratified” by the vote and “I look forward to close cooperation and continuation of close friendship with the United States.” A spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy, Mohammed Haki, said the vote meant the Congress is “helping bring about the just and lasting peace we have been aspiring to have “and is “further testimony of the end of polarization in the Middle East.”

International observers and some Senators spoke of the vote as a “watershed” in Israeli-American relations and suggested that the President may now take a tougher position toward Israel to obtain what he regards as a “just settlement” in the Middle East. “He will now believe he has the support of Congress to speak out on points necessary for a settlement,” one source said.

“He now has freedom of action and has taken an independent U.S. action. It would be logical for the U.S. to be more than a neutral intermediary and publish its points of view and put them to use,” the source said.

Another commentator observed that the Senate vote went beyond the sale of planes to issues of U.S. ties to Israel and to “Arab moderates.” Still another referred to “oil and the ‘new realities'” and noted that three years ago 76 Senators had signed a letter to President Ford attacking his reassessment of Middle East policy while last night “for the first time in many years, Israel last a high priority, high visibility test on the floor of Congress.” The reason “cited often,” he said, is “oil.”


Sen. Lowell Weicker (R. Conn.), a bitter opponent of the Administration’s Middle East policy, charged that the Administration was mesmerized by Arab governments with their political power, petroleum and wealth. “The national posture is kneeling. The backbone is spaghetti and the heart is for sale,” Weicker said.

But Weicker’s Democratic colleague from Connecticut, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, broke with the pro-Israel faction to manage the Administration’s campaign for the aircraft package during the Senate debate. He was described by observers as “an eloquent leader both in public and private” and may have influenced many Senators to vote for the sales because they could point to him and say, “If Ribicoff can, why can’t I?”

Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, the Republican leader in the Senate who also backed the Administration, said the two-hour closed session which Ribicoff had asked for did not change any votes but the “strong case Ribicoff made might have.”


Sen. Mike Gravel (D. Alaska), who voted for the sales, said the Senate action was a “litmus test” that would prove “the watershed year of Jewish influence in this country.” Sen. Charles Mathias (R. Md.), who usually supports Israel but voted for the planes package, said it was “unfortunate to choose among friends” but there will be “many opportunities in the future to reaffirm our support for the security of Israel. This may be the only chance to indicate we have other interests in the Middle East,” he said.

The division among the Senators pitted liberals and conservatives of both parties against each other. Both Senators from Georgia voted against the President’s proposal while Sens. Thomas Eagleton (Miss.), Muriel Humphrey (Minn.), Adlai Stevenson (II.) and Warren Magnuson (Wash.), all Democrats, voted with the President.

With more than two-thirds of the Republicans voting with the Administration, thereby ensuring its victory, the Republican National Committee today blamed President Carter for “forcing a Senate vote” on “an artificial legislative choice.”

Committee chairman William Brock called the vote “an extremely unfortunate step in President Carter’s effort to shift traditional U.S. policy in the Mideast away from the commitment to the survival of Israel by past Republican and Democratic administrations.” He said the President made “an effort to salvage an image of indecision” and he chose “confrontation over principled leadership, parliamentary subterfuge over moral commitment.”


Replying to reporters’ questions about possible future moves in the diplomatic field now that the Mideast aircraft package has been approved, the State Department’s chief spokesman, Hodding Carter, said, “We clearly believe that our position has been enhanced by this and will help the peace process in going forward.”

He indicated, however, that the U.S. is waiting for “the answers we have requested from the Israelis” which “have not come yet” before new moves are made. “I don’t have any new initiative to offer you because our next step, as Secretary Vance said, does await some of those answers.” He added: “The Israeli position has been clearly the position which they have maintained all along. We hope now that the debate on this matter (the aircraft sales) is over, we can go forward.”

Responding to reporters’ questions, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy, Avi Pazner, reiterated his country’s position that “it regards with deep concern the supply of advanced weapons systems, including modern aircraft, to countries maintaining a state of war with Israel.” He expressed “Israel’s concern over the linkage of long-standing commitments made to Israel for the supply of aircraft with the supply to other countries.”


Meanwhile, the White House was engaged in an intensive effort today to assure American Jewish leaders and other supporters of Israel that the Administration was not motivated by anti-Semitic sentiments or a desire to punish Israel in its vigorous campaign for the warplanes sales.

Presidential Press Secretary Jody Powell disclosed that President Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale and other top officials have been making telephone calls to thank supporters of the aircraft package but were also calling opponents of the deal to stress that the American commitment to Israel’s security remains unshakeable. Powell indicated that the President was distressed by what he said were innuendos of anti-Semitism on the part of some Administration officials.

“There is certainly no bitterness or bad feelings from our point of view,” he said, “but one of the unfortunate aspects of this debate is that there have been suggestions or rumors made for political purposes….I have noticed reports that the White House staff was engaged in a vendetta or anti-Semitism. That certainly concerns us and we will attempt to lay them to rest. Whether we will be successful remains to be seen,” Powell said.

He also said that the President stood by his offer last week to sell an additional 20 F-15 jets to Israel after delivery of the 15 contained in the present package is completed in 1983.

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