THERE'S NO GOOD WAY for President Carter to escape unscathed from the bind created by his predecessor's promises to sell warplanes to Saudi Arabia and Israel and his own decision to sell planes to Egypt. Each deal has its diplomatic reason but none is assured of political survival: Congress threatens to block the Arab sales and, if it did, the president insists he'd pull back the Israeli sale.
That is not to say the president is wrong in the way he has packaged the deal for submission to Congress. He expects to submit the package shortly; unless majorities in both houses say no in 30 days, the sales go through. By linking the requests and fighting for them, he keeps faith with past promises made to the Saudis and Israelis, and with his own sound decision to reward Egyptian diplomacy with solid evidence of American favor.By conditioning his approval of the Israeli planes on congressional approval of the Arab ones, he rewrites the terms of the unconditional Kissinger promise to the Israelis but, in so doing, confirms his credentials as a middleman. If he wins, he wins. If he loses, he can blame it on Congress.
Frankly, we'd just as soon see the whole package deferred. When it came up in February, our reaction was that, though the merits were acceptable, the timing was off, and it would be wiser to wait until there was more evidence that Egyptian-Israeli negotiations were back on the track. When those earlier promises to the Saudis and Israelis were made, after all, no one imagined that Anwar Sadat would be heading for Jerusalem. Selling warplanes "just" to cultivate a politcal relationship seems inadequate when negotiations are alive, or when they are a live possibility. Currently, the negotiations are somewhere between alive and a live possibility: They were begun, then broken off (by the Egyptians) in January, and they are not yet back on the track. That's reason enough, in our judgment, to hold up those big arms sales for a while.
Mr. Carter is skeptical but there's just a chance the Israelis will provide a handle for such a delay. Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, who's due in Washington today, says Israel would rather have all the deals put off, including its own, than see American warplane supply lines opened now to Egypt and, especially, to Saudi Arabia. A president with Mr. Carter's oft-stated determination to cut back American arms transfers would seem particularly vulnerable to that tactic. It offers him some solace in one orbit for his embarrassment in another. It provides one way, though surely not the only one, to put big new Mideast arms deals on hold while trying to push negotiations ahead.