In politics as in war the choice of the battlefield can be all-important. President Reagan has chosen, prudently, to accept a test of political strength with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel over the issue of American weapons for Saudi Arabia rather than over American weapons for Israel.
he was urged by some of his advisers to penalize Israel substantially for the Israel air raids on Iraq and on Beirut -- done with American-supplied aircraft. But he sidestepped tht issue by releasing the new aircraft impounded at the time of those raids after a delay so brief that it was a token expression of disapproval, not a true penalty.
But having sidestepped the issue of Israel's access to American weapons, he was under all the greater pressure to prove to the Arab countries that America's Middle East policy is not subject to an Israel veto. The proposed package of modern weapons to Saudi Arabia provided the occasion.
The aircraft for Israel, which had been held up after the raids, were released on Aug. 17. Notice was sent to the Congress on Aug. 24 that the administration intends to go ahead with the arms package for Saudi Arabia.
The package is worth $8.5 billion, enough to narrow substantially the American deficit in its overseas trade. It consists of 62 F-15 fighter planes equipped with long-range fuel tanks and the latest air-to-air missiles, five airborne warning and control system planes known as AWACS, 22 radar ground stations of which 10 are to operate with the AWACS, and 6 KC-135 tanker planes for refueling missions.
Israel objects to the sale of any American weapons to any Arab state. It objects particularly to the F-15 fighters when equipped with extended-range fuel tanks and the latest air-to-air missiles being sold to Saudi Arabia. It objects to the five AWACS. But it would have objected even more vigorously and actively to any interference in the flow of American weapons to itself.
Had President Reagan tried to penalize Israel for the Iraq and Beirut raids by holding up the impounded planes any longer, he almost certainly would have been defeated in the Congress.
Washington remembers the time President Ford tried to do that. On March 24, 1975, he ordred a "total reexamination of American policy toward the Middle East" and suspended further commitments of weapons to Israel pending the reexamination.
Israel activated the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Its representatives wen through the Senate collecting signatures to a letter addressed to President Ford urging him "to be responsive to Israel's needs."
The letter went to the President with 76 signatures. President Ford called of his "reexamination."
This year, also on March 24, the Senate took up the matter of the proposed sale of the AWACS to Saudi Arabia. Two Republican senators, John Tower of Texas and Barry Goldwater of Arizona, spoke up in support of the proposal. Twenty others spoke against it.
It is almost a foregone conclusion that any attempt to suspend the flow of weapons to Israel would be defeated in both House and Senate by wide margins.
But President Reagan is on safer ground when he proposes to sell modern weapons to Saudi Arabia. It is a sale for cash to a country that is pro-American; that has just held the price line in OPEC at $32 a barrel against almost all the others, who wanted to put the price of oil to $40 a barrel or more; and that has already received American crews and equipment (in the form of four loaned AWACS) to protect its bases and air space.
James L. Buckley, former US senator, brother of prominent conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr., and currently the state Department's undersecretary for security assistance, made the opening case for the administration. He placed the case squarely on the opposite of Israel's position.
Israel contends that it is America's only reliable military asset in the Middle East. Mr. Buckley stated that the proposed sale to Saudi Arabia is the "cornerstone" for the Reagan policy of reviving American "strength and credibility" in the region. He also said that arming Saudi Arabia is "the best long-term guarantee of security to ISrael as well as to other states in the area wishing to remain free of Soviet pressure."
Which is the cornerstone of American strength and credibility in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia or Israel? Which is the greater military asset?
The issue is thus joined. President Reagan has broken with the Israeli contention that Israel is the cornerstone and only sure asset. The Reagan administration insists, with the sale to Saudi Arabia, on the contrary contention.
The administration's notice of intent sets up a schedule for the debate, which is now joined. Prime minister Begin arrives in Washington on Sept. 9. the administration will give a formal statutory notice to Congress on Oct. 1. From then until Oct. 30 Congress can block the sale by a vote of both houses. If it fails to block the deal by Oct. 30, the sale goes through.
If the sale is blocked, the Saudis say they can get similar equipment from the british and French. The President apparently intends to put as much effort into this affair as he did into his campaign to put his tax and budget cuts through Congress. The Israelis have activated their Washington lobby.
The end of the affair will show whether Israel does, in fact, hold a veto over US policy in the Middle East.