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Jewish Leaders Weighing Fight on Proposed Tank Sale to Saudis

The organized Jewish community has not yet decided whether to make an all-out fight against the Bush administration’s plan to sell 315 Abrams tanks to Saudi Arabia.

“We are opposed to the sale,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Tuesday. “We have not yet made a decision on strategy.”

But there is little sentiment in the Jewish community, Congress or within the Israeli government for a “knockdown, drag-out fight,” a Capitol Hill source said.

The Bush administration has not officially notified Congress of the sale of the M1-A1 tanks, which are expected to cost about $1.5 billion. But Israeli officials, Congress and Jewish leaders have been told by the administration that it plans to go ahead with the sale.

John Sununu, While House chief of staff, discussed the proposed sale of the tanks briefly in a meeting last week with the Conference of Presidents in New York, Hoenlein confirmed.

The administration has been making an effort to avoid a clash with Congress over the sale. However, there is concern in Congress that the administration has not yet begun consultations with key congressional leaders about the deal.

Customarily, the administration engages in a 20-day consultation period with lawmakers before formally notifying Congress of an arms sale. Once there is official notification, Congress has 30 days to vote the sale down. Otherwise, it automatically goes through.

U.S. DEAL FOR ISRAEL

The administration is trying to blunt any effort by Israel to oppose the sale.

When Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney last month, Cheney reportedly said the United States would be willing to pre-position up to $100 million of weapons in Israel that could be used by either the U.S. military or Israel.

U.S. weapons now pre-positioned in Israel cannot be used by the Israeli military.

There also reportedly was talk of reducing the cost of U.S. weapons that Israel purchases with the $1.8 billion in military aid it receives annually from the United States.

But Hoenlein stressed that for the Jewish community not to actively oppose the sale it wants to see the administration’s long-term plan for selling weapons to the Saudis, “rather than giving it to us piecemeal.”

The administration has been sending arms sales to Congress in small packages, in the hope it will not block them individually as it might if they were grouped together as a massive arms sale.

This strategy has worked so far. Last spring, three arms sales totaling $850 million to upgrade Saudi F-5 and F-15 fighter jets went through easily.

The administration announced last week it plans to sell the Saudis a $485 million package to maintain and improve the F-15s, part of a program begun in 1987.

The sale of the tanks is the next step. However, there is concern that this would be followed by a major arms sale for the Saudis: 110 fighter planes to replace outdated F-5s the Saudis now have. It is not known what type of fighter is proposed, although it expected to be the F-16 or F/A-18.

This sale is expected to arouse more concern in Congress about a potential threat to Israel’s security than the tanks.

But, at news conference in New York last week, Secretary of State James Baker denied that the sale of the tanks or any other weapons to the Saudis would impose a threat to Israel’s security.

“We don’t contemplate sales like this to any Arab government without first taking into account the question of Israel’s security,” Baker said. “We are committed to maintaining a qualitative edge for Israel, and that commitment is simply not going to change.”

The administration is also making the argument, as it has in the past, that if Congress bars the tank sale, the Saudis will buy the tanks from Britain or France.

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