JERUSALEM — The Reagan Administration has granted Israel the status of a non-NATO ally, putting the Jewish state in the same category as South Korea and Japan in terms of its military relationship with the United States, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Sunday.
The move is expected to bring Israel some of the strategic and economic advantages enjoyed by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization without those members' obligation to come to each other's defense.
"The U.S. declaration is of considerable significance--in the first place, political significance," Shamir told Israel radio before boarding a midnight flight to the United States for a 10-day official visit. "For the first time, Israel is formally considered an ally."
Officials here said that the United States is granting Egypt non-NATO ally status concurrently with Israel and that, besides South Korea and Japan, Australia also enjoys such status.
In Washington, State and Defense department officials, speaking on condition that they remain unidentified, confirmed that Israel has received "non-NATO ally" status as a necessary prerequisite for Israeli industry to bid on U.S. defense contracts.
The Defense Department official referred to the procedure as part of the "NATO-ization" of Israel. He said that Egypt is being granted the same status as a matter of "even-handedness" in dealing with the Arab world, noting that Egypt has a much smaller industrial base than Israel and therefore less opportunity to profit in the short run from its change in status.
Shamir said that the specifics of Israel's changed status must still be worked out during his visit to Washington, but other Israeli officials said that move was confirmed last week in a letter to the government here from Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
While Israel cooperates closely with the United States in military and political matters, its alliance with Washington has always been an informal one. And although the latest change will apparently upgrade defense ties between the two countries, officials here stressed that the new agreement falls short of being a full-fledged military treaty, such as that which binds the NATO allies.
"Israel is not a member of NATO and therefore it neither has the rights nor the obligations of NATO," Shamir commented. "At the same time, this status of a non-NATO ally . . . accords us certain advantages, not all of which have yet been determined."
Another official, who insisted on anonymity, described the change as an extension of a 1983 strategic cooperation agreement between Israel and the United States. Details of that agreement are secret but are believed to cover joint military exercises, provisions for U.S. use of Israeli military bases and other forms of cooperation.
However, this source said, Israel is still not interested in a formal defense agreement with the United States because that could force it to coordinate military actions in advance with Washington. "We like to keep our freedom about military activity," he said.
Also, Israeli officials have said previously that they fear the potential impact of any formal military treaty with the United States on the fate of about 2 million Jews believed to be living in the Soviet Union.
A government source said here Sunday that Israel's new allied status is nonetheless expected to bring some of the same psychological advantages as a formal treaty, serving as a deterrent to any enemy considering an attack against the Jewish state.
It had been expected that announcement of the status change would come during Shamir's talks with Reagan Administration officials in Washington, scheduled to start Tuesday. One Israeli government source said that the news was leaked by Shamir's political opponents here in hopes of keeping him from reaping the political credit.
Two Hebrew-language Israeli newspapers reported the U.S. decision in their Sunday morning editions, and Shamir subsequently confirmed it in an Israel radio interview.
Israel has sought non-NATO ally status for a long time. It was a major topic of discussions between Israeli officials and Vice President George Bush during the latter's visit to the Middle East last summer. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a member of the Labor Alignment, which is allied with Shamir's Likud Bloc in Israel's coalition government, has been a principal advocate of the change.
Israeli government sources said that among important economic advantages of this country's new status are expected to be lower prices for U.S. weaponry, access to some NATO research and development funds and preferential status in bidding on NATO contracts for equipment, spare parts, and military services. All of those could be particularly important to this country's defense establishment, which has experienced deep budget cuts during Israel's economic troubles of the last two years.
"For our military industry, it means an expansion of some markets that weren't available to us before," one government source commented.
The Hebrew-language Haaretz newspaper reported Sunday that the new status will enable Israel to sign contracts worth up to $300 million annually.
Another government official said the change could save Israel about $2 million from the normal $15 million cost for each American-built F-16 fighter-bomber that it buys.