Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Israel's top military and political leaders were given a splashy demonstration today of U.S. sea and air power that clearly was intended to underpin Israeli confidence in the American government's commitment to guarantee Middle East peace.
Although U.S. officials persistently denied any political motive to the day-long cruise in the Mediterranean and the noisy display of fire power, the message of American military might in the region was not lost on the 750 officials and guests aboard this massive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the Sixth Fleet.
Officers aboard the 95,000-ton "Ike" said it was the first time in their memory that such an elaborate display had been presented in a foreign port of call, and Begin clearly was impressed.
He said the U.S. Sixth Fleet is welcome to use the Israeli port of Haifa as a base anytime, and that "thanks to the U.S. Navy," the peace treaty with Egypt will be preserved.
Currently, Naples is the predominant port of call for the Eisenhower when it is in the Mediterranean, but when the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed, Begin offered Haifa as the fleet's principal base.
Most of the Israeli Cabinet, President Yitzhak Navone and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan led the huge Israeli delegation aboard for the cruise 15 miles out to sea from Haifa to watch the demonstration.
The Eisenhower, which has been anchored off Haifa for more than a week, was accompanied by the nuclear-powered missile cruiser, the USS South Carolina.
As the Israelis - including, it seemed, every officer above the rank of major - crowded the rails of the 41/2-acre flight deck, some of the U.S. Navy's most sophisticated aircraft were catapulted in the air for the hour-long show.
F-14 "Tomcat" fighters belonging to squadrons with such decidedly non-Middle East nicknames as "The Puking Dogs" rolled through tight turns and unleased cannon and missile fire, while A7 Corsairs and A6 Intruders showered simulated targets with 500-pound andn 2,000-pound bombs, rattling the ship with the concussions and sending officials running for heir earplugs.
On one pass, two of the intruders dropped 20 bombs each, sending a shower of seawater high in the air and raising the eyebrows of several of the more frugal-minded Israeli military commanders.
While Israel has the even more sophisticated F-15 in its arsenal and many aircraft of comparable fire-power to the rest of the American planes displayed here today, it has no aircraft carriers nor cruisers of the likes of the South Carolina, which fired broadsides from its guns at imaginary distant targets and showed off its missiles.
While the Israeli military brass seemed to enjoy the show - accompanied by the inevitable charts- and-slides lectures presented by a gaggle of briefing officers - Israel's air force and navy were not sitting totally idle, according to the Palestinian Liberation Organization radio in Berirut.
The PLO claimed Israeli aircraft flew reconnaisance flights over the Lebanese port of Tyre, about 35 miles north of Haifa, and that Israeli ships cruised there. The Israeli Defense Forces, as is customary with reconnaisance missions, had no comment. But Israeli jets have struck Palestinian targets in Lebanon four times this week, prompting complaints by both the United States and United Nations.
The elders of the rural south Lebanese village of Shaqra appealed to United Nations officers for help in freeing nine local men who were dragged from their homes by an Israeli invasion force that occupied the village for a few hours Thursday, Reuter reported.
The Israelis said they were chasing Palestinian guerrillas who had attacked a kibbutz in upper Galilee.
In Haifa, meanwhile, an Israeli court today sentenced a Senegalese officer serving with the United Nations in south Lebanon to 10 years in prison for attempting to smuggle explosives into the country, Israel Radio said.
The Senegalese, Pap Koli Saar, was arrested in February near Acre, in northern Israel, while carrying a tire full of explosives that Israeli security officials said were meant for Palestinian guerrillas in Israel.
An Israeli security officer told the court he had been disguised as a Palestinian when he met the U.N. officer, who gave him the tire.