President Reagan on Friday proposed a weapons package for Jordan totaling at least $1.5 billion despite warnings that the sale will provoke a bitter battle in Congress that could damage Administration prestige in the Mideast and distract from U.S.-Soviet summit diplomacy.
In a 14-page written statement, the White House said approval of the sale of jet warplanes, anti-aircraft missiles and armored personnel carriers would improve the chances for Arab-Israeli peace talks. Rejection, it argued, would “dishearten Arab moderates and succor radicalism from both Muslim fundamentalists and leftists.”
The Administration has described the measure as a test of U.S. policy in the Mideast--in effect raising the stakes to the point where a defeat would severely damage Reagan’s foreign policy.
Could Divert Shultz
One source said Administration lobbyists on Capitol Hill advised against the sale “because the President has a lot on his plate, and this will take time. This can’t be handled by subordinates. It will require (Secretary of State George P.) Shultz to spend a lot of time on the Hill when he should be thinking” about Reagan’s November summit with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Congressional supporters of Israel already have vowed to attempt to defeat the plan, although a senior State Department official contended Friday that the sale poses no threat to Jerusalem.
Under the complex foreign military sales law, the deal will take effect automatically in 50 days unless both the Senate and House pass resolutions rejecting it. In advance of Reagan’s formal proposal, congressional head counts showed the plan was in deep trouble in both chambers.
Reagan proposed the sale of 40 advanced fighter aircraft, either Northrop F-20s or a new air defense variant of the General Dynamics F-16. Neither plane is yet in production, but the Air Force is conducting a competition to decide which aircraft to buy. Jordan will purchase the same model.
The F-16 variant is designed as an interceptor and fighter but it has far less ground attack capability than the older-model F-16, which is the tactical bombing mainstay of both the U.S. and Israeli air forces.
In addition, the President proposed the sale of 300 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, 72 Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, 12 improved Hawk surface-to-air mobile missiles and 32 Bradley M-3 armored personnel carriers.
The White House estimated the total cost at $1.9 billion if the F-16 is chosen and $1.5 billion if the lower-cost F-20 is selected.
Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation prohibiting any arms transfer to Jordan unless the Amman government publicly acknowledges Israel’s right to exist and agrees to direct negotiations with Israel. A few hours before the White House announcement, King Hussein sought to meet the congressional requirements with a speech to the United Nations that borrowed heavily from the language of the U.S. law.
“We are prepared to negotiate, under appropriate auspices, with the government of Israel, promptly and directly,” he said, “under the basic tenets of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338,” which urged Israel to withdraw from occupied territory in exchange for peace within internationally recognized borders.
Jewish Group Opposed
Nevertheless, Kenneth Bialkin, president of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said, “It’s most unfortunate and disappointing that we should want to provide advanced sophisticated weaponry to Jordan before the king has committed himself to making peace with Israel.”
Hussein is scheduled to meet Reagan at the White House on Monday to discuss the arms sale and Mideast peace prospects.
The White House said Jordan needs the weapons to repair “gaping holes” in its air defenses and to strengthen its ability to meet a growing military threat from Syria, “which bitterly opposes King Hussein’s efforts to arrange for new Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.”
Mindful of the controversy surrounding the sale, the White House timed the announcement for a few hours after Reagan had met Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, apparently hoping that U.S. news coverage would focus on U.S.-Soviet diplomacy instead of the weapons package.
On Thursday, Britain and Saudi Arabia initialed an agreement by which Britain will sell the Saudis 132 military aircraft, including 72 Tornado advanced combat jets, worth between $4 billion and $5.5 billion. Saudi Arabia chose the Tornado after the Reagan Administration bowed to congressional pressure and excluded 40 American F-15 fighters from a proposed arms sale to the Saudis.