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British Relations with Arab World Grow Tense over Rumored Arms Deal with Israel

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Britain’s relations with the Arab world appeared today to be growing tense as a result of a rumored agreement for the sale of Centurion tanks to Israel and a growing fear on the part of the Arabs that Britain’s Middle East policy now tends to favor Israel. The rumors of an arms deal grew out of last week’s meeting between former Israeli Chief of Staff Zvi Tsur, now an assistant to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan with special responsibility for obtaining arms, and British Defense Secretary Denis Healey.

The British Army is replacing its Centurion tanks with new Chieftains, leaving a surplus of Centurions for sale. A Government spokesman refused to confirm or deny that any arms pact with Israel was in the making. He said the Government’s policy was guided by the Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart’s declaration of June, 1967 that Britain favored the suspension of all arms shipments to the Mideast but was not prepared to act unilaterally.

These developments brought strong representations from pro-Arab elements in Parliament and from the Arab world’s press. Sir Dingle Foote, Christopher Mayhew and other Members of Parliament associated with the “British Committee for an Understanding with the Arabs” were expected to raise the question in the House of Commons. They have already brought it up with the Foreign Office. The semi-official Cairo daily, Al Ahram said yesterday that Egypt would advise Britain informally that arms supplies to Israel would be regarded as “a hostile act against the Arab countries.”

The official Egyptian Government spokesman, Mohammed Hassan el-Zayyat, said Friday that any sale of arms to Israel “can only be explained as encouragement if not incitement to the continuation of aggression” and added that Britain’s silence on the reported arms deal “calls for an explanation.” The pro-Western Beirut newspaper L’Orient said that London was adopting a position which was intended to be a counterweight to that of Paris and to neutralize the effects of French diplomacy.

Following French President de Gaulle’s recently enacted embargo on military equipment and spare parts to Israel, Aharon Remez, Israel’s Ambassador to London, spoke hopefully of the likelihood of Britain being ready to fill orders for material affected by the embargo.

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