President Reagan tonight indefinitely delayed shipment of U.S. F16 fighter-bombers to Israel in an effort to restrain what Scretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. called "the escalating cycle of violence in the Middle East."
The president's decision was announced by Haig, who tried to soften the blow to Israel by saying that resumption of the shipment of planes would not depend on the duccess of special U.S. envoy Philip C. Habib in obtaining a cease-fire in war-torn Lebanon.
Nonetheless, the clear implication of Haig's statement was that it was recent Isreali actions -- above all, last Friday's bombing of Beirut -- that led to a presidential decision that until very recently had seemed to be going the other way.
Haig said Reagan was continuing to review whether F16 shipments to Isreal should be resumed and added: ". . . Clearly, the future level of violence in the area will have a very special impact on when that review will be completed and the ultimate decision that's made."
Haig later said in an interview on the ABC News "Nightline" program that "any number of things could happen" that might influence action on the F16s, such as "a quieting down, a cease-fire," or progress in Habib's negotiating efforts. "In the near future," he added, "I think a cease-fire is justified."
[Haig also told ABC that the decision had the "unanimous agreement" of administration officials and that there had been "certain consultations" with congressional leaders. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Charles Percy ]R-Ill.[ had earlier in the day called on the administration to hold up the plane shipments.]
The decision was relayed to reporters at Chateau Montebello, a rustic resort about 40 miles northeast of here where Western leaders are meeting at the seventh annual summit. Reagan and his top advisers met privately for more than an hour before Haig emerged with the announcement. m
The secretary of state said that the Israeli government was informed in advance of the U.S. action, which applies to a previously deferred shipment of four F16s as well as sic other F16s that had been scheduled to fly to Israel on Tuesday. No other military equipment which the Unites States is providing Israel is affected, Haig said.
Growing U.S. apprehensive over last week's Isaeli bombing of Beirut and today's commando attack on Lebanese territory appeared to have overcome Reagan's personal inclination to provide Israel with the war planes.
The apprehension was reflected here at the seven-nation summit meeting, where economic issues were somewhat overshadowed by the tense situation in the Middle East. Foreign ministers of the seven nations expressed "concern and anxiety" about the conflict at a private dinner meeting Sunday night, according to a British government source.
A White House official said today that the other Western industrialized nations were looking to the United States for leadership, believing that Reagan can be more influential with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin than anyone else.
This view amounted to what one official called "polite and very indirect pressure" on Reagan not to send the planes. The reasoning was that a shipment of war planes to Israel at this time would be interpreted by other countries as tacit U.S. approval for the bombing of Beirut and would encourage further violence.
Senior aides to Begin said tonight that they would not be surprised if release of the F16s was linked by the Reagan administration to a cease-fire in Lebanon, Washington Post correspondent William Claiborne reported from Jerusalem.
"We understand that Washington can't do anything but that. We understand their embarrassment," an aide to Begin said. "But I don't think this is an embargo on Israel. If the jets are held for a while, Israel won't be so endangered."
"We know that the United States is not selling us airplanes only for use for parades on Independence Day," another source in Begin's office said. "Somebody else said they (the Americans) are not selling us planes because of our beautiful blue eyes. They sell them because of the common strategic interest between our two countries. I believe the planes will be delivered."
[The sources said they believed that when the fighting in Lebanon dies down, the Reagan administration will again have the opportunity to deliver the F16s.]
The decision that Reagan considered today was the latest link in a chain reaction that began last month when the U.S. government delayed a shipment of four F16s after Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Delivery of these planes was held up pending a review that was supposed to determine if Israel had violated an agreement with the United States not to use U.S. weapons for offensive purposes.
The review had been completed and the White House reportedly was ready to release the planes last Friday when word was received in Washington of the bombing of Beirut, which killed about 300 civilians and wounded 700 others.
Reagan then postponed his decision on the four planes and also put off determining whether to ship Israel another six F16s, which were due to be flown from Peace Air Force Base, N.H., on Tuesday.
The planes were flown to Pease last Friday from a General Dynamics plant at Fort Worth, Tex., amidst expectations that Reagan would permit them to be sent on to Israel. But the Israeli raid this morning gave another signal to the Reagan administration that Begin is unwilling to modify his military plans and spare Washington political embarrassment to get the planes.
An administration official said today that the White House was not totally surprised by the commando raid, as it was last week by the Beirut bombing. Intelligence reports had indicated an Israeli buildup on the Lebanese border, though the actual timing of the attack was not known in advance.
While Reagan met with the heads of states today, Haig and White House counselor Edwin W. Meese III were conferring by telephone with other administration officials, including Vice President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, on the course they should recommend to the president. Haig also talked to special U.S. envoy Philip C. Habib, who was sent to Jerusalem immediately after the Beirut bombing.
The consensus that emerged today among the White House advisers was that it would be unwise to send Israel additional planes now unless Begin agreed to call off or at least sharply reduce his air and ground attacks in Lebanon. This view was presented to Reagan tonight in a meeting with Haig, Meese and National Security Adviser Richard V. Allen.
Last week, White House officials took the position that there was no "linkage" between the Israeli raid on the Iraqi nuclear plant and the bombing of Beirut, saying that the review on whether to send the planes was based solely upon the raid on Iraq.
White Haig and Meese continue to insist that there is no formal linkage, they now acknowledge that the events are interrelated. The president's decision today, Meese said, was "done in the light of the circumstances right now."
According to Lebanese authorities, the planes used in the Beirut raid were American-built F4 Phantoms. The Israelis used F16s in their attack on the Iraq reactor.
The planes that the United States has delayed delivering are part of a shipment of 75 F16s that Israel has ordered. Fifty-three of the planes have been delivered.
One result of the Middle East violence has been an increase of anti-Israeli sentiment, both form other nations at the summit and within the Reagan administration. There was strong sentiment at the foreign ministers' dinner Sunday night for "adjusting the Camp David process to include the Palestinians," according to an Italian source.
And while Reagan's own basic support of Israel is said to have remained unshaken, an administration official conceded today that the White House has increasingly been hearing complaints about Israel's conduct from the president's supporters.
The concern about the Middle East violence was evident in a political statement issued late today by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on behalf of the seven nations. The statement said that the nations were "deeply distressed" by the violence in Lebanon and urged both sides not to commit retaliatory actions.