The Israeli government on Sunday protested the Bush Administration's plans to sell 72 high-performance F-15XP warplanes to Saudi Arabia and said it will insist that the United States honor its longstanding commitment to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge in the Middle East.
Reminding the United States that Saudi Arabia remains formally at war with Israel, the Israeli Cabinet said it will make an issue of the sale, raising the possibility of some sharp questions for President Bush during his reelection campaign.
But the real thrust of the Israeli Cabinet's five-point statement Sunday was what Israel will now get from the United States to ensure that it retains a decisive, high-tech advantage in the Middle East's strategic balance.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, apparently anticipating the long-discussed F-15 sale, had talked about what the United States would do for Israel with President Bush last month. According to the Cabinet statement, "a number of courses of action were agreed upon in order to preserve the qualitative edge of the Israel Defense Forces."
Even as Bush was announcing the sale of the F-15s to the cheers of the McDonnell Douglas Corp. workers who build them in St. Louis, Israeli officials were meeting in Washington with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to discuss further U.S. assistance to Israel, according to Israeli officials.
The Israeli protest thus was regarded by most commentators here as token--a warning to Washington that Jerusalem opposes arms sales to Arab states, that it could mobilize its supporters in the United States to fight them but that it instead would accept "compensation."
With no irony apparent, however, the Israeli Cabinet warned that the sale of the F-15s will accelerate the arms race in the Middle East and then declared: "Israel insists that the United States act in accordance with its commitment to maintain the qualitative edge of the Israel Defense Forces."
Israel does not have the F-15XP among its more than 60 F-15 aircraft, but it does have 150 F-16s, and 60 more-sophisticated F-16 models are due for delivery later this year.
Israel's supporters in the United States had advised it not to campaign against the F-15 sale, arguing that it was a political necessity for Bush because of the jobs it would save in the American defense industry, where cutbacks are widespread. "An election bribe," the newspaper Maariv commented tartly.
The sale, further, would win the necessary congressional support, Israel was told by its American supporters, and a heavy campaign against it would mean pointless confrontation with both Republicans and Democrats in the midst of the U.S. elections.
Israel was told it should instead quietly seek what is described here as a "package deal" in which it might minimize the military damage, such as by preventing the sale of an even more advanced model of the F-15, and later receive "compensation" to assure its security.
This was the type of understanding, according to Israeli officials, that Rabin reached in talks with Bush in the United States last month when Washington finally agreed to guarantee $10 billion in loans to Israel.
But a sour editorial in the English-language Jerusalem Post on Sunday rejected such a trade-off as "a sop to Jerusalem" and denounced the sale as "the final blow to last year's much touted 'new world order.' "
Arguing that the sheer power of the F-15 "translates into no more than seconds from the northern Saudi border to Tel Aviv," the Post editorial contends that the sale will seriously jeopardize Israeli security and implies that the Rabin government has chosen not to recognize it.
"More and more qualitatively superior American technology is finding its way into Arab hands along with advanced training and operational experience," the Post declared.
But most Israeli commentators, noting that Saudi Arabia already has 188 older F-15 models, are now speculating on what Israel should get in return--access to more advanced U.S. military technology, closer coordination in intelligence and strategic planning with the Pentagon, highly visible meetings between Saudi and Israeli officials and a bigger Saudi role in the renewed Arab-Israeli peace talks.
Zeev Schiff, Israel's leading military analyst, writing in the influential newspaper Haaretz, suggested that the government is making a rather poor deal, even as it accepts the inevitability of the Saudi sale.
"Israel, it seems, moved too slowly and clumsily in various areas where it could have received compensation," Schiff said. "The effort is particularly slanted toward preserving the qualitative edge of the Israel Defense Forces, but because of the massive arms sales to the Middle East, this goal has become a motto whose original significance has gone awry.
"Israel was given numerous commitments for the provision of equipment and technology," Schiff said, "but not all have been completely realized."