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The AWACS crossroad; Reagan and Begin spar over crucial Saudi alliance

By Geoffrey GodsellStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1981

If there is a sticking point in this week's Reagan-Begin talks in the White House, it is more likely to be definition of Saudi Arabia's role in overall US strategic planning in the Middle East and the Gulf than the chronically difficult question of the Palestinians.

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Every thing pointed in that direction as President Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin headed for their first meeting ever Sept. 9.

The proposed controversial US sale of five sophisticated AWACS (airborne warning and control system) planes to Saudi Arabia -- to which Israel objects and on which Mr. Begin is expected to challenge Mr. Reagan -- is the immediate point of difference between the two heads of government.

But behind it is an issue of principle: the intent of the Reagan administration to include Saudi Arabia now as the third favored nation on which the US bases its strategic planning to meet the Soviet threat to the Middle East and the Gulf. The other two, of course, are Israel and Egypt.

The Israelis got the message that principle was at stake when US Undersecretary of State for Security Affairs James Buckley described the proposed AWACS sale to the Saudis as "a cornerstone of the Presidents's policy to strengthen the strategic environment of the Middle East."

If this struggle over Saudi Arabia's role is forced from behind the closed doors of the White House out into the forum of US domestic politics in the weeks ahead, there are already indications of the asperities it could engender.

Time magazine last week carried a three-page essay by its diplomatic correspondent on "What to Do About Israel." It said: "The sad fact is that Israel is well on its way to becoming not just a dubious asset but an outright liability to American security interests, both in the Middle East and worldwide. The fault is largely Begin's." This week's cover of Newsweek magazine pictures Mr. Begin inside a Star of David with the headline, "Roadlobck to peace?"

Former Under Secretary of State George Ball -- admittedly a frequent Critic of Israel -- wrote in a column of the New York Times Sept. 6: "We cannot continue to support Israel politically and militarily without sharing the consequences of its actions and decisions. It is time to discuss its policies openly and candidly."

In another column in the same issue of the New York Times, William Safire -- ever an eloquent Begin backer -- took some swipes at Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He then added: "President Reagan and National Security Adviser Richard Allen have apparently crumbled to the view that the only way to win the affection of Arab dictators is to offend and frighten the Israelis."

The battle, despite the broader principle at stake, will be fought this week in terms of the AWACS planes. There have been reports that some leaders of the Jewish-American community had advised Mr. Begin not to get locked into a fight to the finish over the planes because of the risk of permanently alienating Ronald Reagan at the outset of his presidency.

But the Jewish Telegraph Agency, in a dispatch from Jerusalem on the eve of Mr. Begin's departure for the US, interpreted the prime minister's most recent remarks to his Cabinet on the question as seeming to "signal that Israel would throw its full weight into a struggle against a proposed [US-Saudi AWACS] deal."