Prime Minister Menachem Begin denounced the U.S. decision to sell modern warplanes to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as an "obstacle" to peace talks yesterday and said he would go to Washington next month to discuss the growing U.S.-Israeli tension with President Carter.
Begin told the Israeli Parliament that he had received an invitation from Carter to visit Washington for three days of political talks. He said a date would be set later. Originally, Begin had not been scheduled to come to Washington until April.
The Israeli leader urged in his speech yesterday that Carter reconsider his decision to sell F-5Es to Egypt and F-15s to Saudi Arabia. Besides constituting an obstacle to peace negotiations, he said, the sale of warplanes to Egypt would "feed the threat" of war.
[The State Department sought yesterday to soothe the anger of Israel and its U.S. supporters by reaffirming its "lasting commitment" to Israel. House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill Jr. also warned that the adminstration faces a formidable hurdle in getting congressional approval for sale of the planes to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Details on Page A30].
Begin said Israel has learned that Saudi Arabia had already promised "a certain Arab state" to put Saudi arms at its disposal in case of war with Israel and that the sale of F-15s, "the most advanced planes on earth," to Saudi Arabia would turn Saudi Arabia into "an absolute and immediate confrontation state."
Begin did not identify the "certain Arab state" but, according to Israeli army radio, he was referring to Egypt. Officials here were unwilling to say how or when Israel had gotten this information.
Although Begin expressed appreciation for the planes the Carter administration offered to provide Israel he said Israel could not "under any circumstances agree to link the supply of planes promised it with the supply of offensive planes to Egypt or of very advanced planes to Saudi Arabia." This, he said, constituted a "grave danger both to the process of negotiation . . .and to Israel's security." The carter administration reportedly intends to try to win Congressional approval of the sale of the planes to all three countries as a package.
As for the growing confrontation with the United States, Begin told Parliament that Israel had overcome similar periods of U.S.-Israeli tension and would overcome again because the relationship with the United States was a "phenemonon of great depth."
Begin was responding to five urgent motions on the parliamentary agenda dealing with relations with the United States.
It is clear that the Israelis intend to mount a major campaign to try to influence the U.S. Congress to block the administration's arms sale proposal. Israelis feel that, on this particular issue, they stand on solid ground with American Jews.
On the issue of settlements in occupied territories, Israel found itself on less than solid ground with American Jewry and therefore Israel is not altogether unhappy with the prospect of tilting with the Carter administration on a safe battleground such as arms to the Arabs. Israel sees this as a chance to close ranks with its friends abroad.
The Carter administration has proposed that Israel receive 70 F16 Interceptors and 15 of the sophisticated and expensive F15 fighter-bombers.
Egypt is to receive 50 of the much less sophisticated F5E, which is considered a match neither for the F16 nor the F15, while Saudi Arabia would receive 60 F15s.
Of the three, Saudi Arabia was the only country to receive what it asked for Israel had wanted 150 F16s and 25 F15s. Egypt originally requested 120 of the F5Es.
The proposed sale to Egypt has political implications since it is the first time the United States has proposed to sell attack aircraft to Egypt.But it is the proposed sale to Saudi Arabia that has the Israelis worried militarily. With a speed 2 1/2 times that of sound, the F15 is far superior to the F5E, which flies only at 1.6 times the speed of sound.
The U.S. position is that the proposed package deal does not upset the military balance in the Middle East and that Egypt needs warplanes to guard against Libya while Saudi Arabia needs a modern airforce to guard against attack from Iraq.
The Israeli position is that, in a war situation, there is always the possibility the Arabs will forget their quarrels temporarily and that all the Arab air forces, including those of Iraq and Libya, could be turned on Israel.
That is why Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan said Tuesday that the strategic balance was already against Israel even before the proposed arms sale.
The Israelis say that a new northern Saudi airbase being built at Tabouk near Jordan is only seconds flying time away - 120 miles - from Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat and threatens Israel's southern airspace.
They say that this base is not intended to guard Saudi oil fields against attack from Iraq but is positioned for use against Israel. The Israelis do not say that the purpose of the Tabouk base might be to guard Saudi Arabia against an attack from Israel.
The Israelis also point out that the sale of F5Es to Egypt gives Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt a uniform air system for the first time because both the Jordanians and the Saudis already have F5Es.
There are hints that if the proposed sale goes through, Israel may harden its peace proposal in regard to retaining some of its airbases in the Sinai when it returns that occupied territory to Egypt.
The Israelis admit that their air force will continue to remain superior to any likely combination of Arab air forces for the near future but they contend that the long term outlook is against Israel and that any increase in the Arab's war-making capability will ultimately make the Arab states less flexible in their negotiations.