The world waits to see what practical response the United States makes to the surprise Israeli attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor. Officially, Washington "condemns" the attack, but on Friday it is scheduled to hand over four more F-16 planes purchased by Israel, the same kind of plane included in the stunningly successful preemptive attack.
Israel agreed in 1952 not to use arms or planes purchased from the US for aggressive purposes, but the Begin government argues that the strike against the Iraqi nuclear installation was "defensive."
Now America must decide, symbolically at least, how far to carry its condemnation of Israel and whether to be inferentially associated with the policy of preemptive attack which escalates the world problem of dealing with nuclear arms.
Events throw the first policy decision onto President Reagan, who is required under the Arms Export Control Act to make an immediate report to Congress if he finds a substantial violation of the terms under which American weapons are sold abroad. The United States has historically associated with Israel, almost to the point of an alliance, and there are powerful proIsrael blocs in American big cities. On the other hand, there is the strong American desire to cooperate with Arab states in forming a buffer against Soviet extension of power in the oil rich Middle East.
The election in Israel, June 30, between Prime Minister Menachem Begin's party and the opposition Labor Party under Shimon Peres, sends vibrations to Washington: Peres charges that the Iraqi raid was timed to aid the Begin election chances.
Pentagon spokesman Henry F. Catto indicates that the question confronting President Reagan may turn not on whether Israel violated the arms sales agreement, but by how much. The law deals with "substantial violation" but does not define the term. Congressmen, absorbed in the tax and budget fight, are disturbed by the intrusion of the sensitive nuclear issue. Most would like to it to go away, like the situation in 1978 when Secretary of States Cyrus Vance reported that Israel might have violated its arms agreement by actions in southern Lebanon but that US reaction was not needed since Israel was withdrawing voluntarily.
Two other precedents are closely scanned. In June 1967 the Israeli Air Force , using American planes, all but demolished Egypt's Air Force in surprise raids at the start of the war. Some Arab countries withdrew diplomatic representatives from Washington, and it took years to reestablish American influence.
In 1975 Congress, over the objection of President Ford, imposed sanctions on Turkey by cutting off military aid, after that country used American equipment in invading Cyprus.
Israel has big orders of airplanes from the United States. It has purchased 75 F-16s, of which it has received 53, with another four due this Friday. Eight F- 16s were used in the Iraqi raid, according to Mr. Catto. They were escorted by six F-15s, of which Israel has received 25 of the 40 it has purchased from the US.
Reaction to the raid shows sharp division in the United States. Officially America joins the almost universal world condemnation of the attack, which is interpreted as escalating the danger of nuclear war by adding the new dimension of a preemptive strike.
Editorially the New York Times calls it "inexcusable and short-sighted aggression"; the Washington Post terms the raid "a grievous error." The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, praises the action, declaring that it shows "at least one nation left that still lives in the world of reality."
Members of Congress are just as divided. Determining how to react to the Israeli raid is "a tough, tough decision," said House majority leader James Wright (D) of Texas.Rep. Clement Zablocki (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, condemned the Israeli action.
Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia said he was "a little amazed." But Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, hailed the Israeli attack. It was "arguably defensive and not offensive," he declared. US follow-up action is no more needed, he said, than after Israel's strikes in Lebanon during the Carter administration.