Mr. Begin's folly

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There are several reasons why various members of the Senate of the United States oppose the plan to sell modern American surveillance planes (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. Only one among those various reasons is the opposition of the prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin.

But the Begin position on this subject is the decisive reason. Were Mr. Begin to withdraw his opposition and to declare that he no longer objected to the sale there would perhaps be a dozen votes still cast against the sale when the final test comes in the Senate. But there could no longer be any doubt about the outcome.

Few members of the Senate are going to pit their judgment of what is important to the national interest of the US against the judgment of the President when the President is backed by his three predecessors -- unless there is a powerful contrary reason. Mr. Begin is the powerful contrary reason.

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This project of selling the AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia was generated during the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter. It is supported by Mr. Carter's two Republican predecessors, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. It is supported by Walt Rostow who was foreign policy adviser to Lyndon Johnson and by Robert McNamara who was secretary of defense to Mr. Johnson. It is supported by Henry Kissinger who was the primary foreign policy expert to Presidents Nixon and Ford. It is supported by Harold Brown who was secretary of defense to Mr. Carter.

In other words this project has the support of most of those persons who during the previous four administrations were primarily responsible for safeguarding the American national interest. This is a consensus of expert knowledge about American national security which is almost unprecedented. Probably not since the days of the "Virginia Dynasty" has there been such a range of agreement among national leaders on such an issue, if then. (There was sharp disagreement among the founding fathers over the war of 1812.)

Mr. Begin's opposition to the sale of the AWACS to Saudi Arabia is a challenge to the President. It has imposed on the President an expensive political effort. His prestige is involved. There would be damage to his credibility if he lost this test of political strength in the Senate. He cannot afford to lose it. He must spend whatever is necessary in time, energy, and political credit to win this test of his influence in the Senate.

Mr. Begin has imposed this test on the most pro-Israel President of the US since Harry S. Truman. Mr. Truman nourished the state of Israel into existence by, first, supporting the doctrine of unlimited Jewish entry into Palestine. This forced the British to give up their mandate over Palestine and to set a date for their departure. And Mr. Truman followed it up by recognizing the new state of Israel immediately upon its declaration.

Subsequent US presidents, those between Mr. Truman and Mr. Reagan, have all supported the right of Israel to exist within secure frontiers.But not one, until Mr. Reagan, has approved of the extension of Israel's territory beyond the frontiers which came about as a result of the first Arab-Israeli war.

President Eisenhower insisted that Israel get back out of the Sinai Peninsula after the Israelis overran it during the 1956 war. The standard formula after the 1967 war was that the US supported Israel but not its "spoils of war." Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter all supported UN Resolution 242 which called for Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories in return for Arab acceptance of Israel within its pre-1967 frontiers -- with minor adjustments.

Mr. Reagan is the first US president to state that Israeli settlements in occupied territories are not illegal. He has referred to Israel as an "ally" of the US. There is no treaty of alliance between the two countries.

Is it wise and prudent of Mr. Begin to impose a major and damaging test of political strength on a president whose rhetoric and actions have been consistently favorable to Israel?

It is not in human nature for President Reagan to feel as kindly toward Mr. Begin now as he did before Mr. Begin imposed this ordeal upon him. Mr. Begin is spending valuable credit at the White House for something a doubtful value. His country's military prowess is sufficient to guarantee his country's security. This is a curious act of political folly which Mr. Begin, or his countrymen, are likely someday to regret.

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