A majority of the House Committee on International Relations yesterday urged President Carter to reconsider his "package deal" of warplane sales to Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
A letter signed by 21 of the committee's 37 members represented a clear endorsement of the Israeli and organized American Jewish opinion's critical view of the proposed package deal.
The letter contained no threat to seek a congressional veto of the proposed package deal, but the threat was implicit, and the large number of signatures suggested that Carter's plan is in serious trouble on Capitol Hill.
The administration has said it will not provide previously promised advanced fighters to Israel unless Congress allows it to sell comparable planes to Saudi Arabia and less advanced fighters to Egypt at the sametime. Administration spokesmen have called it a package deal.
Arguing against this concept, the 21 members of Congress said the United States had a previous formal commitment to provide advanced warplanes to Israel, and that selling comparable planes to Saudi Arabia would "place Saudi Arabia on Israel's strategic map, raising tensions and increasing the likelihood of Saudi involvement in any future Arab-Israeli conflict."
The members of Congress said the United States does have an interest in "constructive relationships" with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but said that this country has already done a good deal for both of them.
All these arguments have been raized previously by pro-Israeli groups like the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, one of the most effective lobbying organizations in Washington.
Many Jewish groups and other friends of Israel in this country have begun a determined campaign to block the package deal. Their intense opposition to it is the most obvious outward sign of the tensions and emotions that now grip large sections of the American Jewish community and its political allies.
Opposition to the package deal has become a focus for those emotions, with some sources within the Jewish community predicting an intensive campaign to convince Congress to block the package if Carter presses ahead with it.
If both houses of Congress adopt a resolution of disapproval, any or all of the three proposed arms sales can be blcked. Pro-Israeli forces have decided to concentrate on th proposed sale of 60 F15 warplanes to Saudi Arabia as the most controversial element in the package.
They reckon that if the F15 sale can be blocked, they can leave the Carter administration with the difficult decision of whether or not to invoke the "package" by denying Israel and Egypt their warplanes, too.
Last week administration lobbyists said the House Committee on International Relations appeared to be rather favorably disposed to the package deal. Yesterday's letter is a serious challenge to that analysis.
The House committee will deal with any resolutions of disapproval of the arms sales that are introduced.
Administration officials involved in lobbying for the deal are meeting at the White House today to discuss how best to proceed. Many members of Congress, including numerous signers of yesterday's letter, hope Carter will modify the package idea, withdraw it, or postpone it for six months.
Rep. Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.), who circulated yesterday's letter for signatures, said it should not be interpreted as sign that a majority of the committee would definitely vote to block the package deal. He called the letter an "interim step," and said the situation remains fluid, especially so in light of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's visit to Washington next week.
In another development, informed sources confirmed yesterday that John West, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has told staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday that Saudi Arabia might let the price of oil rise if it does not get its F15s. This is an argument the adminsitration has been unwilling to make publicly. West's meeting was closed.