President Reagan moved to reasure Israel and placate Arab nations yesterday in the wake of his suspension of the sale of four jet planes to Israel following its weekend bombing raid on an Iraqi nuclear plant.
In his first personal effort to walk the diplomatic tightrope between contending parties in the Middle East, Reagan told ambassadors from five Arab nations and Israel that peaceful means could have been explored longer in an attempt to ease Israeli concerns over Iraqi construction of a plant said to have been capable eventually of making nuclear weapons.
But, in addition to that criticism, he also told Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron that despite U.S. condemnation of the raid and the suspension of the sale of four new F16s to Israel, there would be no change in the fundamental U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Sudan Ambassador Omer Salih Eissa told Reagan that the fundamental U.S.-Israeli relationship created the impression in some parts of the world that the United States is connected with the Israeli bombing in some way, according to a senior administration official who gave reporters an account of the meeting on the condition that he not be identified.
U.S. officials have said repeatedly since the raid that they had no advance knowledge of Israel's plans.
The Arabs left the Oval Office pleased that Reagan had expressed shock and disappointment over the Israeli raid, but making it clear that they expect further actions against Israel from Reagan, according to Eissa.
Evron issued a statement saying Reagan "reiterated his own friendship to Israel and his commitment to Israel's security and military strength." The Israeli envoy saw Reagan for about 20 minutes following the roughly 30-minute meeting the president held with the ambassadors of Sudan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan.
The administration is reviewing the Israeli raid -- which used American-made F15s and F16s in apparent violation of U.S. restrictions aimed at preventing their use for offensive operations -- and is unlikely to take any further action, either to end the suspension of the sale of the four additional F16s or to further restrict weapons shipments to Israel, until the review is completed, a senior U.S. official said. Informed sources said it is not likely that any further steps will be taken against Israel.
Reagan urged the Arabs and the Israelis to cooperate with his special representative, Philip C. Habib, who has resumed his Middle East travels in search of a way to lessen tensions.
Habib, originally dispatched to the area because of the crisis over Syrian missiles in Lebanon, now will be empowered to discuss the Israeli bombing raid as well, White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes said.
Speakes told reporters that Reagan agreed to the requests for meetings from the Arab ambassadors and Evron "to discuss his initiatives for peace in the Middle East."
The Israeli raid, Speakes quoted Reagan as saying, "is evidence the only answer in the Middle East is to achieve a true peace. As long as there is suspicion among the nations, the specter of further tragedies will hang over us."
The Sudanese ambassador summed up the Arab message to Reagan as approval of the initial U.S. reaction to the raid, but a desire for further actions to restrain Israel.
As he left the White House, Eissa told reporters that "the steps to advance basic problems have not been taken yet. We drew [Reagan's] attention to the fact that the whole world, especially the Arab world, is waiting in anticipation. We would like very much to see the United States do what constitutes the legitimate national interest of the American people in promoting better relations with the Arab world."
"It is up to the American administration to evaluate the relationship and to undertake and shoulder its responsibility toward the state of Israel."
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger denied Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's charges that he recommended halting all U.S. economic and military aid to Israel. The White House also denied the charges.
"I'm sorry Mr. Begin is proceeding on erroneous assumptions," Weinberger said. "I have made no such recommendations." Begin made his charge to reporters in Tel Aviv.
Begin and other Israeli officials have said the raid was essential to the defense of Israel because the Iraqi reactor soon would have been able to produce nuclear weapons.
The senior administration official said Evron reiterated this position and made a strong plea for Reagan to reconsider the suspension of the sale of the four F16s.
The official rejected characterization of the suspension as a punishment of Israel. He called it "a prudent action that gives the president time to conduct a thorough investigation."
Although the Habib mission has been stalled, the administration attempted to give it new momentum in the aftermath of the bombing raid.
Speakes read a statement stressing the president's support for Habib's "important venture." Reagan "wishes that the Habib mission will continue in cooperation with the concerned parties, who we hope share our sense of the mission's importance," Speakes said.
Officials in Lebanon, Israel and Syria stand ready to receive Habib again, U.S. officials said. However, sources familiar with the mission said that it had accomplished little to date.
While the review of Israel's use of U.S. military equipment continued, involving the State and Defense departments, the various intelligence agencies and White House officials, the State Department told Congress that Saudi Arabia violated U.S. arms export control laws by sending 70 American-made tanks to Sudan without prior U.S. approval.
The State Department told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that no further action was contemplated because the Saudis told the United States that their action was the result of "a genuine misunderstanding," United Press International reported.
The tank transfer was described in a letter to committee Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) from Richard Fairbanks, assistant secretary of state for congressional relations.