Tel Aviv — The notion that Saudi Arabia needs a US advance warning aircraft control system (AWACS) to foil a Soviet or pro-Soviet air strike against its precious oil fields drew a hearty laugh from Seattle-born Sara Friedland here.
The attractive high school English teacher, who emigrated to this country a decade ago from the United States, considered this ridiculous.
"As an Israeli," she said, "I think it is preposterous. The Saudis want the AWACS for use against Israel."
She went on to quote her husband, Paul, an American-trained (and born) specialist in Chinese language and history, as predicting that the proposed delivery of AWACS to Saudi Arabia will set a new regional crisis in motion, culminating in another Middle East war.
Like most Israelis, including senior government officials, the overriding concern expressed by Mrs. Friedland was that the US was making its own national interest take precedence over those of Israel -- except that many people here doubt that delivery of the AWACS to the Saudis indeed is in the US interest.
Former Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan objected vehemently to the proposed deal, commenting in an interview that the AWACS would enable the Saudis to tip off the Syrians and Palestine Liberation Organization of every impending Israeli air strike.
The premise upon which Mr. Dayan and almost every other Israeli bases his argument is that the AWACS will give the Saudis an unobstructed look "into our bedroom," enabling them to monitor every takeoff, landing, and flight within Israel's air space.
In the event of full-scale war, the sophisticated sky-eyes would be rendered useless and ineffective. "They're like flying buses," said former Air Force chief Binyamin Peled. "We would just shoot them down and then be free to operate without interference."
But in the Middle East's current half-peace, half-war situation and with the Saudis being able to serve as an intelligence clearinghouse for all other Arab states hostile to Israel, the balance of tactical power would be altered.
There also is serious concern at the diplomatic and political level.
The dispute to President Reagan's decision to provide the Saudis with the AWACS they requested has turned into the first major split between the US and Israel since Reagan's inauguration. It marks the end of a honeymoon between the two countries and a disappointing aftermath (for Israel) to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s recent visit.
It also is seen as an underserved reward to a Saudi regime that has adamantly opposed the fundamental concept of American policy in the Middle East since Egyptian President anwar Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem and the subsequent Camp David Accords of September 1978 -- namely, direct negotiations and formal peace treaties between Israel and its neighbors, as achieved between Israel and Egypt on March 26, 1979.
The Saudi reaction to these developments was to call for "jihad" (holy war) against Israel, the influentail daily, Maariv, said.
According to Maariv columnist Moshe Zak, the Saudis really do not need the AWACS so much as they want to demonstrate their ability to defeat Israel in a political confrontation played out in Washington. (He believes US personnel will be required to man the AWACS anyway.)
With this in mind, Israel is pulling out the congressional and media stops now, hoping its friends in the US will ral ly to the cause.