Israelis are unfazed by the AWACS sent to Egypt
Jerusalem — Israel's government is not put out by the two American AWACS surveillance aircraft now roaming the skies of Egypt. But this demonstration of the sophisticated aircraft's tactical value is a reminder to the leadership and public here of their opposition to the proposed sale of five AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia - a country regarded by Israelis as inherently hostile and as a potential enemy in any future Middle East war.
Security-minded Israelis tend to look suspiciously at any device capable of penetrating their air space through electronic and radar equipment, thereby depriving them of the element of tactical surprise.
But the two AWACS in Egypt do not evoke much concern in Israel since:
* The two countries are formally at peace.
* The two AWACS will be manned by American crews and will scan air spaces other than Israel's (presumably Libya and the Sudan).
* Above all, the planes will leave Egypt after the November war games - the joint Egyptian-US military maneuvers.
The permanent stationing of AWACS planes in Saudi Arabia and their operation by Saudi crews is an entirely different matter, however.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin has repeatedly declared his unwillingness to intrude in a domestic American debate. He did manage, however, to state his views privately to congressional units and to let them seep into the American mass media.
When the Saudis firmly rejected a compromise proposal according to which American crews would also be aboard the five AWACS with Saudi personnel, Begin had his ministers join him in a strong disclaimer.
''The unequivocal announcement of the Saudi Arabian government that it would not agree under any condition to cooperation (that is, American) in the operation of the AWACS planes is an additional proof - if such were needed - that the supply of these intelligence planes is a serious danger to the security of Israel,'' a Cabinet communique said.
Some of Begin's local critics interpreted this text as implying consent to the stationing of the five AWACS in Saudi Arabia if American crews were assigned to stay with them. But the burden of the communique was negative with regard to the AWACS deal and it was meant for the consideration of senators and congressmen due to vote on the issue.
Political considerations have inhibited the Begin government's involvement in the AWACS deal from the start.
When it was announced, shortly after President Reagan's inauguration, Israeli officials were reluctant to enter into a public dispute with a chief executive universally regarded as a staunch friend of the Jewish state.
On the other hand, it was impossible for the prime minister and his colleagues to ignore the scope of the AWACS deal - not only comprising five surveillance aircraft, but also multiple bomb ejection racks, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and disposable auxilliary fuel tanks.
These enhancements, intended for Saudi Arabia's fleet of 62 F-15 Eagle fighter-bombers, constitute a shift in the aircraft's tactical mission from defensive to offensive capabilities, and as such, a deviation from previous commitments made to Israel by the Carter administration when the F-15s were sent to the Saudis.
By late spring, the private consensus in Israel's political elite was that the AWACS deal was irreversible and that to embark on a public campaign to stop it would not only be hopeless, but also would antagonize the Reagan administration uselessly.
That did not prevent Israeli experts from expressing their opinion of the AWACS deal when asked. Ex-chief of military intelligence Aharon Yariv, now head of Tel Aviv University's Center for Strategic Studies, said AWACS in Saudi hands would mean that ''we would be naked from the treetop level up.''
Begin's media adviser, Uri Porat, justified the prime minister's negative stand on the AWACS during a visit to the United States last month, saying: ''We cannot remain silent on a matter of such direct importance to our national security.''
And since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in Cairo and the consequent blow to Egypt's political stability, Mr. Porat and others have noted that Saudi Arabia's government is even less secure than Sadat's and that it therefore would be unwise to transfer the AWACS planes and their companion technology to a country whose political future is uncertain.