IN ISRAEL'S VIEW, there is no such thing as a good time for the United States to sell arms of any kind to Arab countries. Arab nations, of course, feel much the same way about the sale of American arms to Israel. And so, if the United States is going to contribute in a more or less even-handed way to the Mideast arms race by selling military aircraft to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as to Israel, there is logic, and a certain seductive symmetry, in the Carter administration's decision to announce all three transactions at the same time. The Israelis were bound to be outraged in any case, while the concern of the Egyptians and the Saudi Arabians over the sales to Israel was certain to be offset by their satisfaction at getting access to American supersonic jet aircraft for the first time. When you have said that, however, you still have not disposed of the question of whether approval of all three sales was justified. And still less have you answered the question of whether, even if the decision was right, the timing was sound.
The first question is a not easier to deal with, in our view, than the last, for all the Israeli outcry that the Arab-Israeli balance of military power will be dangerously upset. True, there is a theoretical possibility that several years from now the Saudis will be in a position to participate actively in a general war between Israel and the Arabs. Those F-15s could be transferred to another Arab combatant. They could be manned by American mercenaries. And this could introduce important added weight to the Arab side of the equation - theoretically. But the administration has what seems to us a persuasive response: that the sophisticated F15s to be sold to Saudi Arabia are not readily transferable; that the use of American mercenary pilots would be a highly provocative act, seriously injurious to Saudi relations with the United States, for all of Saudi Arabia's oil leverage; and, most important, that Saudi Arabia is quite capable of buying itself an air force, with no American strings attached, from other suppliers. Much the same can be said of the Egyptians' ability to find other suppliers - and to shop for aircraft with far more offensive capacity than the F-5E interceptors it will be buying from the United States. Moreover, to have given Egypt's President Sadat the back of our hand would have been a strange and dangerous way to respond to his hold rupture of the Egyptian relationship with his Russian arms suppliers, given all that this has meant to the military balance between the superpowers in the Middle East.
So we think that on the merits of all three sales, the Carter administration had little choice. Israel's request could hardly be refused; the Israelis have no place else to go for the sort of technologically advanced aircraft that they consider so vital to offset the heavy Arab advantage in numbers of aircraft. But a unilateral sale to Israel right now, without any action on pending requests from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would have been a genuinely one-sided and destablizing act by a country presenting itself as an active mediator and conciliator of the Arab-Israeli conflict. President Carter was wise, in our view, to make it a package deal.
Whether he has struck precisely the right military balance, nobody can say with certainty. But our hunch is that the military effect of these transactions may be of less importance than their psychological and diplomatic effect. And this brings us to the question of whether the timing was right. The announcement of a wholly new sort of American arms sale to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, coupled with sales to Israel that were considerably below that country's requests, was bound to unhinge the Israelis at a particularly delicate moment. Israel and its supporters in this country had already sensed what seemed to them to be a sharp swing in American public opinion - and in the sentiment of American policymakers - in the general direction of President Sadat. For that reason it might have been more sensible to delay all three sales until there was more evidence that the negotiating process set in motion at Jerusalem had been gotten more firmly back on the track. Instead, the arms sales have given symbolic confirmation to Israel's worst fears. Perhaps the United States can find ways, in the conduct of its mediator's role, to express more forcefully its continuing sensitivity to Israel's fundamental security needs - that might help. But the only real antidote to all of the recent rancor and suspicion, on all sides, in our view, would be a speedy return to the hard business of negotiating the principles, and ultimately the terms, of a Mideast settlement.