The US relationship with Israel has its ups and downs, but one factor has remained almost constant: a flow of American weapons to Israel on terms that no other nation enjoys.
The much-publicized suspension of delivery of 10 American F-16 fighter-bombers to Israel does not amount to much when compared with the steady flow of other items in the US weapons pipeline to that small, beleaguered nation.
Since the creation of Israel in 1948, the US government has sold $9.3 billion worth of military equipment and services to Israel. Over the past few years, Congress has "forgiven" nearly half of Israel's debt for the purchase of such military equipment. No other country in the world in recent years has obtained weapons from the United States under such easy terms.
According to US Defense Department officials, military supplies currently being shipped to Israel include bombs, ammunition, 155 mm. howitzers, Hawk ground-to- air missiles, Dragon and TOW antitank missiles, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and Maverick air-to-ground missiles. Israel also has on order 800 M- 113 armored personnel carriers, most of which have yet to be delivered.
Later this year, Israel is to begin receiving the first of 200 American-made M-60A3 tanks. A total of 15 more sophisticated F-15 fighter-bombers are due to be delivered by next spring. Israel already has 25 of these planes, which, at a cost of $26.4 million per plane, are bigger and more capable in some regards than the $13 million F-16s.
The reasons for which the Israelis are given uniquely favorable terms for the purchase of such equipment are several: There is, first of all, widespread sympathy in Congress for Israel and an understanding of the problems that small country faces in carrying such a heavy military burden. The Israelis maintain a military force larger in relationship to their population than perhaps any other country in the world. They are saddled with one of the highest rates of per-capita debt in the world. Nearly one- third of their gross national product goes to defense expenditures. The Israelis are among the most heavily taxed people in the world.
But the special arrangements for Israel resulted in part from the increased American concern for Israeli defenses that followed the 1973 Arab-israeli war. Special attention to Israel's defense requests also was part of the price the US paid for getting Israel to acquiesce in the second disengagement between itself and Egypt, which Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger negotiated in September 1975.
Israel also is to be heavily reimbursed by the US for expenses involved in replacing the air bases it is evacuating in Sinai as part of the 1979 Camp David peace agreements with Egypt. Grants for construction of new airfields will come to $800 million.
Moreover, Israel now is allowed to compete on an equal basis with American firms for US defense contracts. Israel is able to sell to some countries military equipment that contains American components. These arrangements help strengthen Israel's defense industry.
Washington, in the meantime, gives Israel more in military and economic aid than it provides to any other country in the world, at terms many Americans would eagerly accept if it came to the purchase of a house or a car. With less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the world's population, Israel receives about one-third of US overseas economic aid.
Over the past two years, Presidents Carter and Reagan have proposed that two-thirds of $800 million a year in economic aid be given in the form of grants and the rest in concessionary loans. Congress decided to make it all grants. Proposed US military sales to Israel for fiscal 1981-82 was $1.4 billion, with $ 500 million of that debt to be "forgiven."
Many US senators and congressmen were shaken by the recent Israeli attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor and the subsequent air strike into the city of Beirut. But few have brought into question the easy terms under which Israel gets i ts military equipment.