Tensions grow in US-Israel relations

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin has countered American displeasure over Israel's raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor by taking his case directly to the American public and insisting on Israel's right to a free hand in military action.

This tough stand points up an unresolved difference of interests between the two allies that could continue to trouble the Reagan administration if -- as is now expected -- Mr. Begin is returned to power after the June 30 parliamentary elections.

On June 10 President Reagan ordered postponement on the delivery of four F-16 planes, scheduled for June 12, pending an administrative review of the Iraqi affair. The review will examine whether Israel's use of US-supplied planes violated legal restrictions against use of American arms for offensive purposes.

Mr. Reagan's action, which is seen here as the strongest US rebuke of Israel since President Dwight D. Eisenhower's expression of wrath at Israel's 1956 invasion of the Sinai Peninsula, was accompanied by American assurances that there would be no "fundamental re-evaluation" of US relations with Israel.

Israel is expected to receive at least $2.2 billion in aid from the US in fiscal 1982 despite cuts being made in the US budget and other foreign aid allocations.

It has already received 53 of 75 F-16s that the US agreed to sell to Israel as well as 25 of 40 F-15 fighters. Both types of aircraft took part in the Israeli raid on the Iraqi nuclear facility. But US officials refuse to say whether considerable additional military hardware would be shipped on schedule over the next three months.

Israel denounced the suspension of the F-16s as "unjust," insisting that it acted in self-defense. Mr. Begin then went on the offensive. He denounced US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for the decision, at a campaign rally, and sent an appeal against punitive US action to the American public via a message read out at the annual Salute to Israel Parade in New York on June 14.

The US was also embarrassed by Israeli press reports, inexplicably approved by the Israeli military censor on June 14 after being held up the previous week, that key information influencing Israel's decision to attack the reactor came from US intelligence sources.

The tension between the two allies reflects a basic underlying conflict. While both oppose Soviet penetration in the Middle East they don't see eye to eye on how to check it. The US has sought to woo both Israel and moderate Arab states -- like Saudi Arabia, whose oil it needs, and Egypt -- into an anti-Soviet "strategic consensus" that surmounts Israeli-Arab tensions. It had been hoping to renew diplomatic relations with Iraq.

But Israel is skeptical of the American concept. It believes the Arab states -- with the exception of Egypt -- to be unreliable. Most important, it wants absolute say over when and how it protects its security, even if this involves antagonizing the very moderate Arab states whom the Americans are wooing.

"I must concern myself with the people of Israel," said Prime Minister Begin after the raid on Iraq, ". . . and everything else is peripheral."

Moreover, Israel labels preemptive strikes -- such as the one on Syrian helicopters in Lebanon that sparked placement of Syrian antiaircraft missiles there, and the raid on the Iraqi reactor -- as self-defense. And it insists on the right to make these decisions alone: both the Americans and Israelis say the US was not informed before the raids on Lebanon or Iraq. Said a Begin aide, "If Israel had to get permission [from the US], she would never be able to act. This is out of the question."

Adding to the strain between allies is Mr. Begin's style. In the glare of the election campaign, he frequently announces possible Israeli military action. He told a rally June 14 that he would ask special US envoy Philip C. Habib -- who is reportedly due here on June 17 on his continuing mission to solve the Lebanese missile crisis -- "Will the missiles move? . . . If you don't move them, then we will." Mr. Habib's mission is thought to have been severely compromised by the Israeli raid on Iraq.

While the Reagan administration ponders its next move, some Israeli officials are worried about the long-term effects of the current strain in relations. One cause of concern: An ongoing stategic dialogue between the countries, involving the possibility of US stockpiling of strategic supplies in Israel, may be dropped.

Another worry is that furor over the Israeli raid will guarantee congressional approval of the controversial, administration-approved sale of AWACS reconnaissance planes to the Saudis.There is also reported to be some nervousness among military officials about the extent of US military supplies and aid in the future.

But the Begin government seems confident that current tensions will blow over and that the US will accept Israel's explanation of the raid. "Differences of opinion . . . will not have a cloud over the . . . closeness . . . between the two countries," said Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, after the raid on Iraq.

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