There was a flurry of press reports here this morning that while Secretary of State George P. Shultz has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Beirut, back in Washington Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger--in Israeli eyes the preeminent villain of the Reagan administration--was up to no good.
The reports, which emanated from the Israeli Defense Ministry, held that Weinberger had abruptly blocked implementation of an administration decision to release U.S. technological information needed by Israel to construct the Lavi aircraft, a new generation Israeli fighter.
By the end of the day, the flap appeared to have died out. Senior U.S. officials characterized the Israeli press accounts as "behind the curve" and said that the Lavi technology would be delivered to Israel as announced two weeks ago.
State Department spokesman Alan Romberg said U.S. licenses for export of the Lavi technology had been amended last week as a result of discussions with Israeli officials and the companies involved. "We believe we have now met the requests put to us by the Israelis," Romberg said.
Other sources said the change in the licenses resolved a bureaucratic controversy in which the State Department favored a more extensive sale of technology to Israel than did the Defense Department. The State Department position was said to have prevailed.
Although the Lavi flap was brief, it served to underscore a point easily overlooked amid the Shultz shuttle: that there is more involved in the secretary's mission than gaining an agreement for an Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon.
A whole range of U.S.-Israeli issues are certain to become intertwined in the troop withdrawal talks. By Shultz's presence, the Reagan administration has increased the stake it has in hammering out an Israeli-Lebanese accord. But to do so, Shultz will have to win from the Israelis further concessions in their negotiating demands.
In a relationship that often seems to resemble that of an indulgent parent given to occasional outbursts of anger and a petulant youth resentful of its dependent role, the United States is likely to be asked for concessions by Israel in return for any concessions the Israelis make to Lebanon.
The case of the Lavi technology is an example of the twists in the relationship. It was a matter of the United States reaching out in hopes of patching up ties that have been badly battered in the past year by Israel's invasion of Lebanon and deep differences over President Reagan's Middle East peace initiative and Israel's settlements policy in the occupied West Bank.
The announcement that the technology would be made available to Israel was made in mid-April, a short time after Moshe Arens, an engineer who has played a personal role in the development of the aircraft, took over as defense minister from Ariel Sharon. The message was clear: The administration hoped to have a far smoother time with Arens, who has just completed a tour as ambassador to the United States, than with Sharon, whose relationship with the United States was acrimonious.
Another aircraft, the U.S. F16 fighter-bomber, is directly linked to the troop withdrawal talks. On March 31, in response to a question, Reagan said that a shipment of F16s to Israel would be suspended as long as Israeli troops remained in Lebanon.
The president's statement had no immediate practical effect since the planes are not due to be delivered here until 1985. They are now, however, publicly part of the bargaining process, and it is assumed that a lifting of the delivery suspension will accompany an Israeli troop withdrawal accord with the Lebanese.
At least two other U.S.-Israeli issues may become linked to the troop withdrawal talks. One is a possible revival of the memorandum on strategic cooperation signed by the two countries in 1981, which provided for joint military exercises and planning in the Mediterranean, the exchange of military assistance and the establishment of a coordinating council between the two nations.
The agreement, however, was never formally approved by the United States because a short time after the memorandum was signed Israel annexed the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Reviving the accord will not be as simple as promising to deliver the F16s.
A move toward a new strategic cooperation agreement now likely would be proclaimed by the Begin government as tacit if belated administration acceptance of the Golan Heights annexation and reduce the chances that Syrian President Hafez Assad will agree to withdraw his estimated 30,000 troops from Lebanon--one of Israel's conditions for its own withdrawal.
There is finally the whole question of the level of U.S. aid to Israel, which now totals $2.6 billion in military and economic grants and loans. The Begin government strongly objected last year when the administration unsuccessfully sought to prevent Congress from increasing the aid amount above levels recommended by the president. The same process already is underway again.