The Carter administration will in no way change its plan to sell 60 F15 fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia despite claims by Israel and the pro-Israeli congressional bloc that last week's bloody Palestinian assault on Israel creates a new situation.
Moreover, the administration will not be deterred from its "package" sale of aircraft to Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - all three sales to stand or fall together in Congress. That tells much about President Carter's inner determination. Not only will it further anger Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin; it also portends more trouble in the new confrontation between two old friends: Israel and the United States.
The White House mood on the eve of Begin's visit here could hardly be more different from the jittery desire to please that animated the administration when the Israeli leader first came to Washington last summer. Begin, winner in an election upset, was praised by Carter for having helped lay the "groundwork" for peace.
Begin now is regarded in the White House as an adversary whose word is suspect ("He lied to us on the settlements issue," a top administration official charges). The administration believes Begin still has not given President Anwar Sadat of Egypt the proper response due for the Egyptian's Jerusalem trip.
No effort will be made next week, as it was last summer, to pretend major differences between the two countries do not exist. Rather, Carter "will conceal nothing about the underlying contradictions as to basic political facts in the Middle East as viewed by us and by Israel," another key Carter adviser told us.
Those contradictions start with Israel's military power. Here is the reason Jimmy Carter is showing unaccustomed tenacity in not letting last week's terrorist tragedy be used to scuttle F15 aircraft for Sauid Arabia.
Although not advertised by White House spokesman Jody Powell, Carter has been steeping himself in studies of relative military strength in the Middle East, particularly air power. Carter's conclusion: Israel now is at the point where it could wage total warfare on all fronts simultaneously without needing supplies from the United States.
Particularly impressive to the president was the exhaustive analysis of Israel's military power, published last October by the authoritative Armed Forces Journal. The author, Anthony Cordesman, was chief civilian assistant to then deputy secretary of defense Robert Ellsworth in the Ford administration.
Entitled "How Much Is Too Much?" the article supports the U.S. connection with Israel on the basis of "morality history and domestic politics." But it raises critical questions about Begin and dangers to U.S. policy posed by a Begin-governed Israel freed from U.S. military restraints by the huge weapons buildup following the 1973 war.
According to Cordesman, Begin "has made it clear he intends to abuse the U.S. Israel alliance to permanently seize control of West Bank towns and territory that have no desire to be part of Israel . . . While Begin may or may not destroy Israel's first real hope for peace in the process, he has already begun to seriously damage U.S. interests.
The president is also impressed by similar warnings from the Pentagon about Israel's military might; that power could be used without seeking prior approval from Washington and without considering its effect on U.S. interests in the Arab world. The same note has been sounded to the president by Gen. Alexander Haig, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, speaking for himself and for America's NATO allies.
Accordingly, no current or prospective development will change Carter's mind about the "package" of modern aircraft for Israel and Saudi Arabia and older F5 defensive aircraft for Egypt. The first shot across the president's bow was fired last week by the House International Relations committee, when it asked Carter to dump the Saudi F15s. Harder shots will be coming in the battle of arms heating up between Carter and Israel, aided by its friends in Congress.
But the president will not modify his "package" position: If the Saudis are denied F15s, Israel (and Egypt) will also be denied their aircraft. There are signs Israel may let the president win out of fear that if the three-sided deal blows up, the Saudi will simply go to Paris and buy Mirage aircraft, almost the equal of the F15. Israel, totally dependent on the United States for arms, would not want that to happen.