A toughly worded note from Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin concerning Israel's use of U.S. warplanes to bomb an Iraqi nuclear reactor last month provoked a bitter response from Begin in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis, sources said yesterday.
The issue, which reflets the depths of feeling on both sides about the controversial air strike in Iraq, is extremely sensitive, and officials are reluctant to discuss it or provide precise details.
Copies of a cable from Lewis to the State Department reporting on the episode initially were circulating with in the department, but reportedly were recovered from all office by Haig's aides.
Sources who have heard about the situation said the Haig note was a U.S. attempt to enforce some kind of consultative procedure with Israel to prevent U.S. weapons from being used in offensive roles and give the United States a say in determining what constitutes offensive rather than defensive use of such equipment.
Sources here and in Israel said the exchange with Lewis, who conveyed the Haig note, was heated, with Begin rejecting the purpose and thrust of the message. The sources said Ephraim Evron, Israel's ambassador to the United States, was called in to the State Department to see the note before its delivery.
The dispute is said to be a factor causing behind-the-scenes problems here on the question of whether and when to release other U.S.-built F16 fighter-bombers, the type used in the Iraqi raid and already order for Israel.
In the wake of that raid, the administration announced suspension of delivery of four F16s ready for shipment, pending an investigation of whether Israel had violated arms agreement provisions calling for use of the jets only in self-defense.
The Israelis maintain that the planes were used in self-defense and that no other nation may make that decision for Israel. Six more of the jets are to be delivered by next Friday.
Sources here said Begin's reponse to the Haig letter makes it more difficult to justify resuming those sales. Despite reports attributed to unidentified administration officials that the suspension on the F16 will be listed soon, one senior White House official said yesterday that no decision has been made and that the issue remains open.
That does not mean, the official added, that action will not be made to release the planes.
Later, a high-ranking administration official said he did not think the situation would remain "a serious hitch." He said all 10 jets would be released to Israel within a week and that the notification of what arrangements the United States expects with Begin as a result of these deliveries would be done orally.
He suggested that Haig's letter to Begin, essentially putting these conditions in writing "like a contract," is what "drove Begin up the wall." The official said the United States would resume deliveries with the understanding that this country would be notifed about the nature of future Israeli missions.
One source said release of the planes with no Israeli concessions would be certain to cause problems for the United States in the Arab world. But another source said revelations of future U.S. involvement in any "consultative" procedure with Israel could involve the United States indirectly in other Israeli actions, even if Israel took the decision independently.
Other administration sources reported yesterday that a Haig message to Begin concerning the F16 also implied that the Israeli leader should alter his frontal opposition to the proposed U.S. sale of airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes to Saudi Arabia.
Reduced Israbeli opposition to such a sale, the note reportedly suggested, without mentioning AWACS, would help the administration complete the F16 deliveries. The administration feels strongly about completing the AWACS sale.