Part of the confusion about the proposed sale of planes to Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is tactical. All the parties are masking their position for trading purposes.
But a deeper and far more serious muddle jumbles the deal to the point of craziness. The sales bear no visible relation either to peace in the Middle East or to defense of the area against the Soviet Union.
With respect to peace, what hope remains springs from President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. In the subsequent negotiations Egypt and Israel came very close to striking a bargain. The Israeli offer to return the whole of the Sinai desert to Egyptian sovereignty stumbled only on the matter of Israeli settlements. That is easy to compromise, as many leading Israelis, including foreign minister Moshe Dayan, have said flatly they will not let the settlements stand in the way of peace.
More difficult is the future of the territories west of the Jordan River, which the Israelis call Judea and Samaria. Prime Minister Menachem Begin has offered self-rule to the Arabs in the area and suspended indefinitely any Israeli claim to sovereignty.
But the local residents who want the West Bank to the base of a Palestinian state demand the right of immediate self-determination. So the Egyptians, though they do not want a Palestinian state unless it is part of Jordan, have felt obliged to press for self-determination.
In fact, the issue cannot be settled now, and the various attempts by the Carter administration to write declarations of principle were condemned to failure. What can be done is to leave the future open.
The Israelis should add to their present offer a proviso that after a certain period of time there would be genuine self-determination. The Egyptians would accept the decision that self-determination be achieved only after a period of time. That would close the deal, and as a sweetener both countries could be given the arms they now seek.
The Saudis, however, have opposed the Sadat initiative from the first. King Khalid was originally irritated that the Egyptian leader went to the Knesset in Jerusalem at a time when good Moslems were supposed to be wending their way to Mecca. Since then Riyadh has consistently emphasized Palestinian self-determination. While continuing to subsidize Egypt, the Saudis have also continued subsidies for the most bitter opponents of the Sadat initiative: Syria and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
The Saudis have also used their influence to keep King Hussein of Jordan out of the talks. Now they and Hussein are readying a proposal for a summit meeting of Arab leaders including Sadat and President Hafez Assad of Syria. At that meeting Sadat would acknowledge that his peace initiatives have been killed by Israeli intransigence, and be welcomed back into the Arab fold. That, in effect, would be the end of the peace initiative.
Authorizing a sale of advanced jet planes to the Saudis, in these circumstances, makes no sense at all. It is a reward for being unhelpful - a death shot at the peace initiative Washington should be trying to keep alive.
As to the defense problem, the Soviet Union is arming the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Libyans and the Palestinians in the Middle East. In the horn of Africa, the Russians are beefing up the forces of South Yemen and Ethiopia. These groups all threaten Saudi Arabia and Egypt and they - at least - pose problems for Israel.
So as part of the continuing effort to block Soviet expansion, the plane sales make sense. But they have not been joined in any coherent relation. There is no provision for an American coordinating role, with a bse in the area (perhaps in Sinai) and a command that could organize the anticommunist forces for common action.
What all this says to me is that the plane deal is essentially a power play - a vehicle whereby the administration can win one over the Congress and over the so-called Israeli lobby. The deal does nothing to advance the common defense, and it actually works against the prospects for settlement in the Middle East.
So in my view the House and the Senate ought to do what in their guts and hearts they want to do. That is to force the suspension of all the sales until the Sadat initiative has had a chance to run its course.