The AWACS affair is different now

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The original argument for selling five supersophisticated surveillance and combat control planes to Saudi Arabia was a weak one. As critics of the deal point out, the Saudis have little experience in managing such fancy instruments of war and a doubtful need for them. Like so many weapons sold carelessly around the world, they are important to the recipients more as a status symbol than as something actually needed. Besides they might, as in Iran, fall into unfriendly hands.

In retrospect it seems probable that the ofer by Washington to sell those planes was a mistake, and had better never have been made.

But the offer to sell and deliver was made and accepted. And now that offer and that promise to deliver exist in a new and different context. Under some circumstances it could be cancelled. It might have been cancelled as a balance to some other deed favorable to the Arabs in the Middle East issue.

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But the Reagan administration has done a series of deeds and spoken a series of words which have been favorable to the Begin version of what Israel wants in the Middle East with no balancing deed or word favorable to the Arabs.

The President identified Jewish settlements in occupied Arab territory as being "legal," when his three predecessors consistently called them "illegal."

His national security adviser, Richard Allen, justified Israeli sorties into Lebanon as falling under the doctrine of "hot pursuit," when previous administrations protested the use of American weapons outside of Israel as being contrary to the agreement under which the weapons were provided for Israel's defense only.

Pro forma protests were made over Israeli bombing of the French-built nuclear reactor near Baghdad in Iraq an the raid on apartment houses in Beirut in which some 400 Lebanese civilians were killed. Shipment of American war planes was held up briefly as a token of disapproval, but the planes have long since been released.

The recent visit by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a triumph for the visitor and, in the eyes of Arabs, a disaster. Mr. Begin went away talking about arrangements for "strategic cooperation." He made it sound as though the United States and Israel are about to become formal allies.

President Anwar Sadat of Egypt had been in Washington before Mr. Begin and had begged the President to be firm with Mr. Begin about the settlements in occupied territory, about military sorties into neighboring Arab states, and above all about negotiations looking forward autonomy for the Arabs of the occupied territories. He begged the President to recognize the PLO and to push Mr. Begin towarc completion of the program laid forth at Camp David for the liberation of the occupied Arabs from Israeli military control.

Little of what Mr. Sadat wanted was provided. Virtually everything Mr. Begin could have asked was granted.

In other words, little except for the promise to Saudi Arabia is left now of the US contention that it is an impartial and "even-handed" friend to both Israel and the Arabs and hence qualified to mediate the differences between them.

Thus the promise to sell those five AWACS planes, plus much other military gear, to Saudi Arabia has become the one remaining symbol of the old American position that it is interested in peace in the Middle East on a just and fair basis.

Under these new circumstances the cancellation of the sale of US weapons to Saudi Arabia would be seen among the Arabs and also throughout the Muslim world as signaling a decisive commitment by the US to Israel at the expense of the Arabs. Indeed, that is already the interpretation being placed on the Begin visit by the radical Arabs and by Moscow.

If this radical interpretation is confirmed by cancellation of the sale to Saudi Arabia the consequences would be unfortunate for US interests in the Middle East. It would push Iraq, which of late has been distancing itself from Mowcow, back into the moscow embrace. It would undermine the political position of President Sadat in Egypt, of King Hussein in Jordan, and of the royal family in Saudi Arabia.

Those three regimes are among the most moderate Arab governments, the most friendly to the US, and the most ready to recognize Israel. All three would be weakened and possibly even be overthrown by Muslim fundamentalists and social radicals if Washington cancels the sale to the Saudis. Saudi Arabia supplier of oil and also America's best customer in the Middle East.

In other words, a vote cast in Congress to bar the sale of Weapons to Saudi Arabia is a vote to radicalize the Arab countries; is a vote to offend all Muslim countries; is a vote to repudiate any last pretense of an "even-handed" policy between Arabs and Israel; and is a vote to push the Arabs into the willing arms of Moscow.

The offer should probably never have been made, but to repudiate it now would be a foreign policy disaster for the united States.

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