At stake in the bitter fight over selling AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia is the "strategic consensus" that President Reagan is trying to build to defend the oil-rich Gulf from any Soviet threat.
"Strategic consensus" is a code phrase for United States bilateral cooperation with Saudi Arabia, with Israel, and with Egypt in a defense plan for the whole region.
It has always been recognized that the Arab-Israeli dispute over Palestine makes any formal defense alliance among the four impossible. But now the conflicting demands of Israel and Saudi Arabia over AWACS threaten to wreck the entire strategic consensus concept.
What has happened is that after virtually monopolizing US concern in the Middle East for nearly three decades, Israel today is finding it difficult to adjust to a situation where it must share US interest with two other countries. Worse still, from the Israeli viewpoint, both are Arab countries and one, Saudi Arabia, has been hostile until now to even the idea of peace with Israel.
Indeed, since the oil crisis of 1973-74 made the Gulf (rather than Israel) the center of US concern in the Middle East, Israel has seen Saudi Arabia as its most threatening foe among Arab governments. And subsequent events, not least the 1979 revolution in Iran, have made Saudi Arabia an ever more attractive candidate for US friendship and protection.
Faced with this rival for US concern, Israel has tried to thwart US-Saudi moves to draw closer together. Hence the efforts of the Israeli government, the US Jewish community, and the pro-Israel lobby in the US Congress to torpedo the AWACS deal.
Precisely the reverse logic applies with the Saudis. For them the AWACS deal has become a litmus test of the genuineness of the US desire to bring Saudi Arabia into the proposed consensus as a full partner.
The Saudis also hope that the AWACS deal will prove to critics in other Arab countries that the US is willing to treat Saudi Arabia as an equal -- and not as a subordinate according to Israeli dictates. This is all the more important to the Saudis because the Arabs (including the Saudis themselves) feel the US has failed to force Israel to move constructively on the most sensitive question of all: the Palestinians.
A Saudi official's statement Oct. 3 that joint US-Saudi operation of the AWACS planes would not be acceptable to his government should be seen against this background of sensitivity. US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. had reportedly sought Saudi approval for such a course at a meeting the previous day in New York with Saudi Foreign minister Prince Saud.
Mr. Haig was hoping joint operation of the AWACS planes would help make the sale of the planes palatable to some US senators who have come out against it. It is still possible that the Saudi statement was intended primarily for Arab audiences and leaves open the possibility of resolving the issue of joint operation under, say, a formula for joint training.
Saudi sensitivity was probably more hurt than assuaged by President Reagan's statement at his Oct. 1 news conference: "I have to say that Saudi Arabia we will not permit to be an Iran." The Saudi royal family might have found this offensively close to a public US statement that Washington saw them as puppets to be saved in the last resort by American arms.
Yet if the Saudis winced at this off-the-cuff observation by the President, Israelis and American Jews were probably even more rudely jarred by a sentence in Mr. Reagan's prepared statement read at the beginning of his news conference: "It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy. An objective assessment . . . of [the] US national interest must favor the proposed sale [of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia]."
Nobody had any doubt that Mr. Reagan was addressing Israel and its more zealous partisans in the US. And former President Richard Nixon was blunter still in a statement issued Oct. 4 -- his first major foreign policy statement since Mr. Reagan entered the White House.
"If it were not for the intense opposition by [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and parts of the American Jewish community," Mr. Nixon said, "the AWACS sale would go through. This is a cold fact that opponents of the sale, whatever their own particular reasons, must take into account. This fact will greatly affect the consequences if the sale fails to go through. . .
"Israel's friends should not be under any illusion that they help Israel's cause by embarrassing and undermining the authority of their indispensable friend in the White House."
Few things disturb American Jews as much as innuendoes or allegations to the effect that they have divided loyalties -- between the US and Israel. Both Mr. Reagan's and Mr. Nixon's statements came close to that implication. Any suggestion along these lines raises the specter for American Jews of other Americans turning on them in a wave of anti-Semitism.
It is hard to see how Mr. Begin can reverse himself publicly on the AWACS issue. To do so would be politically suicidal for him at home. What remains to be seen is whether the American Jewish community will deem it prudent to soften their opposition and let the deal go through.
Last month, after Mr. Begin's visit to the US, the Washington correspondent of the Jerusalem Post wrote:
"Whatever the outcome of the final [US Senate] vote [on AWACS], Israel and the American-Jewish community will probably live to regret the fact the the AWACS package has evolved into a largely Israeli issue. Indeed, the entire sale represents a no-win situation for Israel.
"If the Saudis get the aircraft, Israel's security later this decade will be threatened. If the sale is rejected, the President and his administration will probably blem Israel and the Jewish community for a humiliating foreign policy setback.
"The Pentagon, anxious to help defray the financial burden of buying AWACS for the Us Air Force and NATO, will retreat from the willingness to strengthen strategic and military ties with Israel.
"But that's the price Israel and the Jewish community will pay for having taken the lead in fighting the sale."