The Reagan administration announced yesterday that six F16 fighter-bombers earmarked for delivery to Israel later this month will be transferred on schedule. In addition, administration sources said privately that four other F16s, whose delivery was suspended after Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor, will be released soon.
The announcement that the administration plans to go ahead with July 17 shipment of the six sophisticated jets was made by White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes and State Department spokesman Dean Fischer. However, both insisted publicly that suspension of the four other planes remains in effect pending completion of an inquiry into whether Israel used U.S.-supplied aircraft in its June 7 raid in contravention of its agreements with this country.
Despite that public stance, administration sources said a decision has been made at senior governmental levels that U.S. interests require delivery of the four planes at the earliest feasible date. To do this, the sources added, the administration will have to make a finding that Israel did not commit a substantial violation of U.S. legal provisions incorporated into its agreement governing the use of American-supplied military equipment.
Precisely how that will be done is still under consideration, and the sources said the legal problems that have to be unraveled could delay release of the four planes until after the six others are in Israeli hands.
Originally, the sources added, the administration's intention was to time the release of the four aircraft for shortly after the Israeli national elections, which were held Tuesday. But, they said, the closeness of the election, which may mean a lengthly delay before the identity of Israel's new prime minister becomes clear, and the legal problems have made that timetable less certain.
Another potential complication, the sources noted, is that Congress, which else is investigating the raid, can block delivery of the planes and other aid to Israel if it determines that a substantial violation was committed. The clear signals from Capitol Hill are that Congress would prefer to dodge the issue and leave the decision to President Reagan, but the sources said protocol considerations could force the president to delay acting until Congress says its investigation is complete.
Delivery of the planes at this time will cause extreme anger in the Arab world and further complicate Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s efforts to enlist the more moderate Arab states in a "strategic consensus" that would regard the Soviet Union, rather than the Arab-Israeli conflict, as the prime threat to Mideast stability.
Despite that fact, the sources said, the administration is concerned that holding up the planes any longer could cause severe strains in its relations with Israel and provoke new domestic political pressures on the White House from the American Jewish community.
Under the applicable U.S.-Israeli agreement, which incorporates provisions of the 1952 Arms Export Control Act, Israel is supposed to use American-Provided military equipment only for self-defense, cooperative regional defense efforts or U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping activities. The rationale for the raid offered by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was that Iraq planned to use its reactor to manufacture nuclear weapons for use against Israel.
Although Begin's charges about Iraqi intentions have been disputed by several countries, Reagan, at a June 22 news conference, said he thought Israel may have legitimately believed it was acting in self-defense when it staged the raid. That line of reasoning, some sources said, is likely to provide the basis for a finding that will permit release of the four planes.
When Reagan suspended delivery of the four F16s on June 10, the administration stated specifically that the hold on delivery did not apply to other large military shipments due to go to Israel beginning this month. Under a 1978 arrangement, Israel had ordered 75 F16s, and has received 53. The four scheduled for delivery last month and the six due to go July 17 represent the next installments in filling that order.
As of yesterday, the administration's public posture -- one that appeared to say that six planes would be delivered while four would remain in suspension -- caused the White House and State Department spokesmen to come under a barrage of questions about the seeming lack of logic to the situation.
Speakes and Fischer did concede that some change in plans could occur in the almost three weeks remaining before the six F16s are to be delivered. But both also cautioned that their response on that score should not be interpreted as a signal or even a hint that the six also will be held up.
Administration officials declined, even in private, to speculate about what effect, if any, delivery or withholding of the planes at this point might have on the still-unclear results of the Israeli elections and the question of whether Begin or his Labor Party challenger, Shimon Peres, will emerge as prime minister.
The State Department publicly took a no-comment stance on the election returns. In private, though, department officials predicted that Begin's conservative Likud Party probably will succeed in patching together sufficient support from other Israeli political factions to retain its hold on the government.