Israel and the United States declared tonight that they have resolved a "misunderstanding" on the use of U.S. supplied weapons by Israel in its attack against Iraq's nuclear reactor last month.
A communique issued by both governments following a meeting between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. State Department counselor Robert McFarlane shed no light on how the conflict had been settled, nor did it explicitly suggest that the Reagan administration would lift the suspension of the delivery of four F16 aircraft to Israel.
But the language of the communique, coupled with Begin's earlier rejection of suggestions that Israel would consider seeking U.S. approval of preemptive air operations, appeared to reflect backpedaling from the previous U.S. positions.
Begin had dismissed those suggestions as "absurd."
"If anyone should think such a thing, that one sovereign country should consult another sovereign country about a specific military operation in order to defend its citizens, then it would be absurd," Begin told reporters after an initial three-hour meeting with McFarlane.
Following a second meeting tonight, McFarlane, with Begin at his side, read the communique. The men then refused to answer questions.
"The governments of the United States and Israel had extensive discussions concerning the Israeli operation against the atomic reactor near Baghdad," the communique said. "The discussions have been conducted with candor and friendship that is customary between friends and allies. Any misunderstanding that might have arisen in the wake of the aforementioned operation has been clarified to the satisfaction of both sides."
The communique made no mention of delivery of the jets, but Israeli television later announced that the planes would be delivered with another six scheduled for arrival on Friday.
[In Washington, the State Department announced Monday night that McFarlane will return to the United States by Wednesday to report to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and consult with Congress. The statement added that no decisions will be made about the 16s "pending receipt of his report" and congressional consultations.]
[In private, however, administration sources denied McFarlane had backpedaled and said preliminary indications were that he had won the sort of face-saving concessions that the United States hopes will help prevent anti-American rhetoric among Arabs following release of the planes.]
[According to the sources, the idea of seeking accord on a prior consultation arrangement had been discarded before McFarlane went to Israel. Instead, his instructions were to seek some kind of Israeli acknowledgement that the United States has important regional interests in the Middle East, and the sources said their in initial reports about his talks gave them grounds for optimism.]
The Reagan administration held up delivery of the war planes on June 10 pending a determination of whether or not the Israeli raid into Iraq had violated the terms of a 1952 arms supply agreement that such weapons would be used for defensive purposes only.
Following his first meeting today with Begin, which was described by participants as tense and at times argumentative, McFarland refused to answer reporters' questions.Begin, in an impromptu news conference outside his office following the first meeting, said he and McFarlane had differed sharply on the need for any further understanding about the use of U.S. supplied weapons.
"We did argue about that," Begin said. "Each brought out his opinion, and I can say with a clear conscience that the fact that I do not have a written agreement reflects that one has not been reached."
Begin acknowledge that there was tension over the use of U.S. supplied F16 and F15 jets during the Iraqi reactor bombing raid June 7. But he sought to portray it as a problem for the United States and not Israel.
"We have to put aside and behind us a problem which arose as a result of our operation near Baghdad, in which we destroyed an atomic bomb-producing plant . . . In an act of supreme, legitimate self-defense," the prime minister said.
When asked if Israel could offer the United States any assurances that it would take American interests in the Middle East in mind, Begin replied, "We always take into consideration American interests. those of our friend and ally . . . [But] we don't have anything to apologize for. If such demands will be put to us, than we shall state our position."
When asked whether McFarlane attempted to link release of the jets with an end to Israeli opposition to the United State's palnned sale of for Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia, Begin replied, "No, he did not make such a linkage. But one could surmise there is such a connection that exchange of views we had and the renewal of the supplies."
Cabinet sources said the thrust of Begin's argument throughout the meeting was that Israel already has an explicit understanding with the United States that U.S.-supplied weapons will be used by Israel only for defensive purposes and that all of Israel's strike in Lebanon and Iraq have been defensive.
Each time McFarlane proposed new language to the understanding, aides to Begin said, the prime minister responded that no new formulas were needed once the United States accepted that Israel's use of the weapons had been defensive.
Begin also today threatened his potential coalition partners in the formation of a new government with a new election if they do not modify their demands for Cabinet portfolios and special interest legislation.
Calling a demand by Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu Hatzeira's Tami Party for two Cabinet seats "political bribery," Begin said he would not yeild to such demands, adding, "I'm ready for elections again. I'm sure we would get more mandates to the Knesset," the Israeli parliament.