A "not" was inadvertently dropped from a sentence in the Evans and Novak column yesterday. The sentence should have read: "High Israeli officials are now using the F-15s for Saudi Arabia as a major new reason not to yield to Egypt three Israeli military airfields located on the Sinai Peninsula, particularly a major base near the Israeli Aqaga Gulf port of Eilat."
Although motivated by highest U.S. interests, President Carter's request for modern fighter planes for Saudi Arabia could backfire by prompting Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to stall negotiations with Egypt and thereby endanger peace in the Middle East.
The president's courageous decision to confront Israel and pro-Israel bloc in Congress by selling Saudi Arabia 60 F-15 aircraft, the West's best fighter plane, was based on the need for strong U.S.-Saudi links. This nation's economic future depends in major part on Saudi Arabia's friendship, because of both its leading price-setting role in the international oil cartel and its massive dollar holdings now invested within the United States.
If the Saudi aircraft deal (tied to lesser plane sales to Egypt and Israel) went to Congress today, it probably would escape the simple majority opposition of both House and Senate needed for a congressional veto. But by the same time it reaches Capitol Hill in early April, Congress may be far lesss inclined to approve it because of deadlocked Mideast peace talks.
The strong suspicion in official quarters here is that Begin's deepening intransigence is motivated in no small part by his opposition to the F-15s for Saudi Arabia. If peace is certainly not at hand in the Middle East, Congress can be more easily talked out of arms for Arabs.
The heart of the issue for Israel is not really concern over future Arab use of those aircraft against Israel, as Begin asserts. Rather, it is deep-seated Israeli fear that the Saudi-U.S. link is becoming strong enough to affect the 30-year alliance between Israel and this country.
For the first time since Israel became a state with U.S. aid, it is competing with an oil-rich Arab state for Washington's favor. Gradual strengthening of economic and military links between Saudis and Americans was reinforced by the peace initiative of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, now the Saudis' best Arab friend.
Israel, accustomed to having its way in Washington, worries about thsi new competition - as shown when Begin intimate Moshe Arens spoke privately to the House International Relations Committee recently. Arens, chairman of the Israeli Parliament's Security Committee, attacked the Saudi aircraft deal as stupid for the United States. His point was that if trouble threatens Saudi Arabia from Iraq or Libya or other extremist Arab states, let us - Israel - handle it for you. The message: It's Israel and the United States together, and let's keep the Arabs out.
Given that fundamental Israeli policy, Begin's objective is to weaken the U.S.-Saudi link in every possible way and prevent the kingdom from expanding its U.S. political and economic base. One way to achieve that is to block the sale of the F-15s.
Incredibly, Israel is determined to block the deal even if Egyptian-Israeli peace prospects suffer. Begin himself has publicly given warning. On Feb. 16, he told the Israeli Parliament that the proposed aircraft deal was a threat to "the process of negotiations" between Israel and Egypt.
High Israeli officials are now using the F-15s for Saudi Arabia as a major new reason to yield to Egypt three Israeli military airfields located on the Sinai Peninsula, particularly a major base near the Israeli Aqaba Gulf port of Eilat. Israel had not agreed to turn over the airfields anyway. But the Saudi aircraft deal is now being used as sudden new justification for retaining them, on grounds they are needed to guard against the Saudi air "threat."
Begin and his hard-line policy are in worsening political trouble in this country. This is shown by recent Gallup Poll results reflecting more support for Egypt's Sadat than Israel's Begin (plus 2-to-1 approval for carter's Mideast performance).
During Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan's recent visit here, his congressional briefings did not end with the habitual spontaneous outbursts of pro-Israel support. Instead, the mood was somber, even hostile.
Despite this clear cautionary signal, the American Jewish community is now gearing up the toughest campaign against an American president since Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger were backed against the wall in their ill-fated "reassessment" of U.S. policy toward Israel in the spring of 1975. The new campaign is aimed at teaching Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, as Ford and Kissinger learned, that the pro-Israel bloc is too strong to be challenged - even in the present political climate.
Behind the threatened aircraft sale lies what remains of Sadat's peace initiative, now stalled in haggling and recrimination. Seeking to shore up his indispensable links with Saudi Arabia, President Carter made an understandable and quite likely unavoidable decision. But in so doing, he may have gravely undermined his great dreams for the Middle East.