Politicians are often impelled by strategic considerations to proceed by indirection - to point one way, while moving in another. The sale of radar aircraft to Saudi Arabia is a classic illustration of this principle.
According to the Reagan administration, the sale will bolster the Saudis' defense of their oilfields, reduce the threat of attack from their radical neighbors, and thus reinforce the strategic position of the US and its allies - including Israel.
The administration is too genteel to stress the mundane fact that the Saudis, unlike the Israelis, can pay cash, and that the deal consequently has a broader constituency than pro-Arab policies usually enjoy.
According to the Begin government, Saudi-owned AWACS would be less likely to be used against Arabs, Iranians, or Russians than against the Israelis themselves. Begin and his supporters contend that the Saudis don't deserve so handsome a concession as long as they oppose the Camp David peace process. This contention seems to make sense until you realize that the Camp David formula had two parts - Sinai and Palestine. Israeli withdrawal from Sinai has proceeded precisely on schedule, but there is not a shred of evidence that Israel is preparing to release any part of Palestine, or ever intended to.
Palestine, not Sinai, is the Saudis' primary concern.
Both the Reagan and Begin arguments deserve attention, but both miss the central issue: who are America's closest allies in the Middle East?
For 30 years, this issue was never in question. America's closest Middle East ally was Israel, and the proof was the financial and logistic support that the US provided, year after year, to ensure Israel's military superiority over any conceivable combination of Arab states.
But as the philosopher said, the only thing permanent in this world is change. As the years wore on, the US grew more dependent on Arab oil, traditionalist regimes went under one by one, Western influence in the area waned, and radical Arab forces emerged to pose sharper pressures and more ambitious demands on the Western government. On May 16, 1978, the Senate endorsed the Carter administration's proposal to break with tradition and sell sophisticated combat weapons to Arabs as well as to Israelis. Egypt was to get F-5E jets, Saudi Arabia the even more advanced F-15.
In the last presidential campaign, the Republicans denounced the Democrats for letting Israel down, but Reagan confronts the same strategic imperatives that Carter did. AWACS for Saudi Arabia continues the policy that Carter already laid down.
In essence, this issue is not military but political. Whether or not radar planes ever enhance Saudi defense capabilities, they will symbolize a new intimacy between the US and cooperative Arab regimes.
If Saudi AWACS are ever used against Israel, they are unlikely to have decisive impact on the military outcome. The Israelis' deeper concern is that their sale to Saudi Arabia epitomizes the end of an era - the end of that unique Israeli-American relationship - with incalculable implications for the balance of power in the Middle East.