The Reagan administration formally denied yesterday that it has deciced to resume shipment of F16 fighterbombers to Israel, but its denials served mainly to underscore the impression that the disputed planes will be en route to the Middle East by the middle of the month.
That was the result of an almost surrealistic performance by various administration spokesmen who started out trying to counter press reports that the ban imposed on shipment of four jets after Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor soon will be lifted.
Instead, the spokesmen found themselves lurching through a series of contradictory and illogical statements about the status of the four planes and six additional F16s scheduled for delivery July 17. As one State Department official said, "The upshot of everything that was said amounts to an almost virtual guarantee that the Israelis will have a clearance for all 10 planes before the month is over."
Following the June 7 raid, President Reagan put a hold on delivery of the four jets pending an investigation of whether Israel's use of American-supplied planes involved a substantial violation of U.S. law. But administration officials said at the time that the suspension did not apply to substantial amounts of other military equipment, including additional F16s in the pipeline to Israel.
On Wednesday, when reporters noted six more jets were scheduled to go to Israel July 17, deputy White House press spokesman Larry Speakes said their delivery would not be affected by the review involving the other four. Administration officials, questioned about the illogical nature of the situation, said plans also were under way to lift the ban on those four planes.
After that was reported yesterday, the obviously embarrassed administration did an about-face and had Speakes read this statement:
"The suspension of arms sales to Israel announced on June 10 applies to the four F16s which were scheduled to be shipped June 12. The review on whether there was a violation of the arms sale agreement continues, and no decisions have been made. The review is expected to be completed prior to any decision which is necessary on the future arms shipments of F16s. Other questions should be referred to the State Department."
That led to a long and confusing exchange between reporters and White House spokesman David R. Gergen. Although he was asked several times whether the statement meant a potential hold on the other F16s expected by Israel, Gergen was unable to resolve the apparent conflict with earlier administration statements and finally referred the matter to the State Department.
But, the exchange there between reporters and department spokesman Dean Fischer turned into a replay of the White House performance.
Fischer said several times that "no decision has been made on future deliveries" of F16s and was reminded repeatedly that his assertion contradicted the administration's original statement that the suspension applied only to the four planes put on hold last month.
Finally, although he insisted he wouldn't be pinned to a specific date, Fischer said, in effect, that the administration's review will be completed before the July 17 delivery date for the other planes.
Since it is an open secret that the administration has no intention of breaking its military supply relationship with Israel, Fishcher's concession appeared to mean that all 10 planes will be released by that date.
At the White House, Gergen, while rejecting suggestions that the administration appeared to be "confused" about the situation, admitted some of its statements probably had been somewhat lacking in precision.