The debate about the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia has recently taken an ugly turn. The transfer of a complex high-technology weapons system that heretofore has never been transferred to the national control of even NATO allies raises questions deserving serious debate. These are not resolved by transforming the issue into a personal quarrel with the Israeli prime minister; after all, even were a more lovable personality at the helm in Jerusalem, he would be likely to oppose the arming of a self-proclaimed adversary. Nor are dark references to "parts of the American Jewish community" appropriate. It is quite possible to conclude on the merits-- as I have --that the sale is in our national interest, and deserving of congressional approval.

We owe it to ourselves to conduct the debate preceding the decision in a manner compatible with the stakes involved. The past decade and a half has seen too much controversy in terms of motives and personalities. We are dealing here not with adversaries but a de facto ally, Israel, and a friendly Arab country whose security and stability are vital to American interests. They are both too important to us to become actors in our domestic passion play. It is a pity that earlier quiet diplomacy did not resolve the problem or that there was not a fuller asessment of Senate sentiment. At this point, a naked test of strength can only compound all difficulties and mortgage the future.

I strongly favor congressional approval of the sale. But the conclusion is not self-evident; serious men and women who are uneasy deserve respect, not opprobrium. I have had to overcome the following concerns:

The Shift in American Policy: In 1978, when the last sale of high-technology equipment to Saudi Arabia was made, the Carter administration assured the Congress (as well as some of us who testified on its behalf) that no augmentation would be undertaken. Within two years that same administration reversed itself and not only began to negotiate an augmentation of the original package but also agreed to the principle of the addition to it of AWACS. Such a rapid reversal casts doubt on the American word and the consistency of our overall foreign policy; it is especially inimical to the Mideast peace process in which American assurances and guarantees have in the past played such an important role in encouraging Israeli withdrawals, and will be even more important in the future.

The Role of Saudi Arabia: Anyone who has been associated with the conduct of our foreign policy will remember many acts of friendship and support by Saudi Arabia for our country. I fully agree with the president that the security and stability of Saudi Arabia is a vital American interest. Yet I wonder whether this friendship needs to be implemented in quite so ostentatious a manner. The subtle rulers of the Kingdom have maintained their independence and enhanced their influence by skillfully navigating between conflicting pressures, careful not to expose their country to strains difficult to sustain. It is important that our policy balance ardor with understanding for the necessities imposed by Saudi Arabia's precarious position and that we do not encourage Saudi Arabia to overextend itself.

The Israeli Security Problem: The prickly personality of the Israeli prime minister, whose combative attributes were surely no secret before his recent visit, must not obscure that there is a genuine Israeli security problem that lies at the heart of Israeli opposition to the AWACS sale. I do not believe that the AWACS add crucially to the existing Arab reconnaissance capabilities from ground stations in Syria and Jordan. But the sale evokes the nightmare in Israel that the technological margin on which Israel's security depends is gradually being eroded by a series of transactions each of which can be justified on its merit but whose cumulative impact may jeopardize the future of the state of Israel. The AWACS has been made a surrogate for this concern in a manner certain to inflame passions and by tactics producing needless strains. Yet the fear is real and not unreasonable whatever one's view about the methods by which it has been expressed.

The Need for Congressional Approval: Granting all this, the opponents of the sale must recognize that thwarting the administration's plan is not the way to deal with the problems they have identified. Indeed, it would compound most of them. One can hold the view--as I do--that before bequeathing the present package to President Reagan, the Carter administration should have been less insouciant in reversing itself, more careful about exploring alternatives. Yet for the Reagan administration to overturn the decision in principle of its predecessor would have involved unacceptable costs in the relationship to Saudi Arabia, which is central to the stability of the Middle East and to the hopes for peace. And for Congress now to overturn a new president's recommendation on a matter of such magnitude would magnify these dangers and jeopardize the entire design of our foreign policy.

The long-term relationship with Saudi Arabia and the methods by which our two friendly countries can best support each other's real interest are among the most vital issues facing American foreign policy. They deserve serious analysis within our country and beween the United States and the Kingdom. But a negative decision on AWACS would embitter such discussions before they have fairly started. Saudi Arabia is a key element in the design of a moderate Mideast policy. It does not deserve a rebuff. Nor can it be in our interest to force Saudi Arabia to buy comparable equipment from other countries eager to supply it, countries that would be much less meticulous about the technical arrangements and whose political influence would surely be less compatible with our goals.

Finally, it would be a tragedy if Israeli opposition to the sale and our effort to overcome it soured the possibility of the long overdue strategic dialogue between Israel and the United States. The current uproar should tell us that problems swept under the rug are the crises of tomorrow. The AWACS did not go away by being in effect ignored for months. A similar lack of consensus can be detected on crucial peace negotiations just before us; and the impasse will be even more intractable and the passions even deeper if we do not face it in time. The much touted strategic cooperation with Israel requires less the prepositioning of equipment than the coordination of purposes. And that will be endangered to everybody's immense peril if an end is not rapidly put to the bitterness of the present debate.

To sum up: the administration acted prudently in fulfilling the commitments of its predecessors on the AWACS sale. The damage of a negative vote to our position in the Middle East, to a moderate evolution of the area and to a constructive peace process would be grave, perhaps irretrievable. The Congress must not undermine the president's authority in international affairs by a rejection of the sale; the consequences would haunt us for many years in many fields. We cannot afford this--especially after a decade and a half of domestic division.

There are many who speak of a compromise. In the abstract it is a tempting prospect, especially if all parties agree to it. At this remove, two caveats are in order. If the sale is worth doing we should get the maximum benefit from it. We must not encumber it with makeshift pseudo-solutions that ease a domestic problem without changing the strategic realities: a sale of the AWACS hedged by meaningless conditions sufficient to embarrass and perhaps humiliate those wordan.hose security and stability we are seeking to enhance by the sale. In particular I have serious doubts about the permanent stationing of Americans on these planes (other than instructors for a minimum period of time). This could involve us in unforeseeable crises, give Saudi Arabia's enemies a pretext for pressure and run the risk of seeing us on both sides of a Middle East war.

The best immediate "compromise" would be an urgent discussion with Israel on how to maintain its technological and military position after the sale of AWACS is approved. Other Israeli security concerns seem to me importantly met by the technical arrangements for the employment of the AWACS that have been negotiated.

So let the disputants leave the trenches. Opponents should remember that there are some victories too dangerous to win; the administration should keep in mind that societies thrive not on triumphs in domestic debates but on reconciliations. There is hopeful work to be done which will never be completed if we turn an essentially technical disagreement into a civil war.