News Analysis: Little Fallout Yet on Capitol Hill About Alleged Project with Pretoria

Charges that Israel is collaborating with South Africa in the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons have not caused a backlash against Israel on Capitol Hill, at least so far.

Washington representatives of Jewish organizations report they are hearing little or nothing from senators and members of the House of Representatives about the allegations, first broadcast by NBC News on Oct. 25.

“I think people are still trying to determine what the facts are,” Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said Tuesday.

But Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) suggested that criticism was muted because Israel has “a lot of clout” in Congress.

Dole and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), appearing Sunday on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” said that the United States should publicly criticize Israel if the allegations are true. But both said that they did not believe that U.S. aid to Israel would be cut.

“But, you know, Israel has a lot of clout in this town,” Dole said. Asked if it was “too much clout,” Dole replied, “Sometimes.”

Dole publicly criticized Israel in August, when he suggested that its leaders should exercise “a little more restraint” before launching operations such as the capture of a Shiite fundamentalist leader in Lebanon.

CONGRESSIONAL RESPONSE ‘MUTED’

Aside from the senator’s latest remark, there is a reluctance on Capitol Hill to comment on reports of Israeli cooperation with South Africa. And both the White House and the State Department have denied that Israel transferred any military technology it received from the United States to South Africa.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that the congressional response has been “very muted.”

He said the subject did not come up when the conference met with several senators and representatives Monday.

Hoenlein credits this to the prompt denials by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He also noted that allegations of Israeli-South African cooperation are not new and crop up from time to time.

The first of the latest NBC reports on the subject, aired on its Oct. 25 “Nightly News” program, charged that Israel was helping South Africa develop a nuclear-tipped missile.

The report said Israel was in “full-blown” partnership with Pretoria because South Africa provided enriched uranium for Israel, as well as a place for Israel to test missile technology.

If the NBC allegation were to be proven true, it could endanger a continuation of U.S. aid to Israel, because Israel would be in violation of both United Nations and U.S. sanctions against military cooperation with South Africa.

Faced with such a threat in March 1987, the Israeli Inner Cabinet announced it would not initiate any new military cooperation with South Africa, but would not abrogate existing contracts.

The Defense Ministry reiterated Oct. 26 that it was abiding by this policy.

ISRAEL URGED TO SIGN TREATY

In responding to the NBC allegations, the Bush administration said last week it had no evidence that Israel had transferred U.S. technology to South Africa.

But it said it was investigating the charge and noted that the U.S. ambassador in Israel had often discussed the issue of missile and nuclear proliferation with the Israeli Defense Ministry.

At the same time, the Bush administration has been using the spotlight now on Israel’s nuclear capability to once again urge Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Israel has steadfastly refused to sign the treaty while repeatedly asserting it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

However, there has been speculation in both Jerusalem and Washington that the allegations were leaked to NBC as an implied threat to Jerusalem for one reason or another.

One suggestion is that the leaks were made to put additional pressure on Israel to accept Secretary of State James Baker’s proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in Cairo.

Another possible scenario is that officials in the Pentagon leaked the charges to ensure that Israel and its allies in the United States would not try to block a proposed sale of 300 advanced M1-A2 tanks to Saudi Arabia. The argument is that if Israel were shown to have nuclear capability, it would be difficult to claim that the tanks would be a threat to its security.

A third suggestion is that the allegations came from those within the administration who want to block the sale of super computers to Israel. The administration is presently weighing whether to allow Israel to buy the equipment, which some claim can be used to advance its nuclear capability.

Hoenlein seemed to discount these theories, especially the Baker scenario. He noted that NBC had been working on the story for some time, so the allegations could not have been timed to meet current issues.

WARNING FROM ASSISTANT SECRETARY

Israel’s alleged relationship with South Africa did come up briefly this week during one congressional hearing, when a Bush administration official urged Congress not to adopt legislation that would impose mandatory sanctions against companies providing ballistic missile technology to Third World countries.

Richard Clarke, assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs, told a House subcommittee Monday that such legislation could impact certain U.S. programs with Israel.

Clarke said that if there were either a corporate or governmental relationship between Israel and South Africa on missile development, “then this legislation, or other versions of it, might mandate that we terminate a variety of programs with Israel.” The assistant secretary did not specify which programs, nor did he explain what an Israeli relationship with South Africa had to do with proliferation in the Third World.

He was testifying against a bill, sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), that would deny U.S. government contracts, export licenses and/or technical assistance for foreign and domestic companies violating a 1987 law against exporting missile technology.

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