British Arms Deal with Saudis Triggers Deep Concern in Israel

Israeli officials are deeply concerned over a multibillion dollar arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia, announced Friday in London.

The deal, estimated to be worth between $34 billion and $36 billion, was discussed at the Cabinet meeting Sunday. Premier Yitzhak Shamir promised a more extensive, secret review by the 10-member Inner Cabinet later this week.

The high-technology weaponry that the deal will put in Saudi hands is one cause of anxiety. Another is adverse repercussions in the United States.

The activities of the powerful Israel lobby in Washington are blamed for Congress’ veto of administration proposals to sell similar weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, thereby depriving American arms manufacturers of lucrative sales.

The Israeli government issued a low-key statement before the Cabinet met saying the arms sale would “not contribute to stability” in the Middle East.

Yosef Ben-Aharon, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, said in a Sunday morning radio interview that Israel learned of the Anglo-Saudi deal only when it was announced.

He noted that it was a follow-up to arms package contracts the British signed with the Saudis in 1986.

The latest package includes 50 Tornado fighter planes — in addition to 72 sold the Saudis earlier — dozens of Hawk jet training aircraft, Black Hawk helicopters, minesweepers and the construction of two air bases by British engineers in Saudi Arabia.

CABINET MEMBERS DISAGREE

Two aviation experts in the Cabinet clashed during the meeting over the capabilities of the Tornado aircraft and whether it poses a threat to Israel.

Moshe Arens of Likud, an aeronautical engineer by training, said it was the best warplane of its kind for low-level operations.

Laborite Ezer Weizman, a former Air Force commander, called the plane a “flying piano.” Both men are former defense ministers and now serve as ministers without portfolio.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a military expert in his own right, said the Tornado was a superb bomber, but not so good for interception.

Rabin took sharp issue with Arens for saying that the British arms deal with the Saudis should prompt Israel to reconsider its own Lavi jet fighter project, which was scrapped last year at Washington’s insistence because of excessive costs.

Rabin said Israel should not pour its resources into one aircraft when it should be trying to develop or acquire a variety of sophisticated weapons systems.

A BLOW TO U.S. INFLUENCE

But it was Weizman who expressed the worries of many Israelis when he suggested that it might have been counterproductive for Israel to have pressured the U.S. Congress to prevent the sale of American arms to the Saudis.

Ben-Aharon defended Israel’s lobbying activities. He said an American-Saudi arms deal of such proportions would involve ongoing service, political commitment and sharing of military strategies, relationships Israel does not want to see growing between Washington and Saudia Arabia.

But Reagan administration officials view the British deal as a blow to American diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East. Britain will be replacing the United States as the Saudis’ principal arms supplier.

In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, “When we deem it as appropriate and necessary to provide weapons to our allies and friends in the world, we need to be very careful before we reject them too easily.”

He added, “This is a $30 billion loss that American companies might well be slightly upset about.”

At the State Department, spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said “We think it does hurt our American interests. We think our interests are better served when we can sell legitimate self-defense items to friendly Arab countries.”

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