THE ISRAELIS WILL get their warplanes. President Reagan has now lifted the embargo. You will probably agree that Mr. Reagan made the right decision, if you are willing to assume--as we do-- that he came to consider the quarrel over the embargo to be a dangerous distraction, and that he lifted it in the hope of pursuing the main question in less emotional and more useful ways.
The main question is the use to which Israel puts the weapons that it buys from the United States. Beyond that, the main question is the state of the alliance that binds the two countries. The alliance is firm, and it continues to rest in both countries on broad public support. But it is necessary to say that this support has been eroded a little by the events of this summer. It is deeply distressing that the Israeli government has given no visible sign of understanding the nature of this slow erosion. There has been damage--not irreparable, but not unimportant--to the presumption, once all but universal in the United States, that in any Middle Eastern collision the Israelis would prove to be morally right.
The end of the embargo does not indicate the end of the American concerns that initiated it. The Israelis used American warplanes to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and Mr. Reagan's reaction was altogether reasonable. He was on the point of lifting the embargo in July when Palestinians attacked an Israeli town, killing three civilians, and the Israelis replied by bombing Beirut and killing several hundred. Through it all, the Israelis have argued that the embargo was unjust and even illegal. The Israeli government kept saying that although the planes were built in the United States, they were in fact Israeli planes because Israel had bought them under a contract promising delivery--as though they were refrigerators or television sets. By August the dispute over the embargo, conducted in the narrowest possible legalisms, dominated conversation between the two allies. President Reagan released the planes, presumably, to give American diplomacy a wider field in which to work.
No one can doubt the courage of the Israelis, or their resolution to hit back devastatingly hard when they are attacked. But the Israeli government often gives an appearance of having settled into a posture of total rigidity on all questions touching its neighbors, and on everything involving the Palestinians. It gives an appearance of having abandoned any hope of political solutions and put its faith in the F16s. It is urgent that Prime Minister Begin and his colleagues demonstrate that those appearances are fundamentally misleading. That is the message for Mr. Reagan to deliver to Mr. Begin when he comes to Washington next month, a welcome visitor at an opportune moment.