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U.S. Indicates It’s Ready to Sell the Saudis Advanced Jet Fighters

Fears that the United States might reward Arab countries cooperating with its efforts to isolate Iraq were confirmed this week, when the Bush administration signaled its willingness to sell Saudi Arabia some of its most sophisticated weapons.

President Bush said Wednesday that he would not hesitate to send Congress such an arms sale proposal if the Saudi kingdom determined the weapons were needed for its defense.

Bush was asked about reports that the administration was considering selling Saudi Arabia the F-15E, the most sophisticated version of the advanced F-15 jet fighter.

“We should do all we can to help the Saudis arm themselves against aggression,” the president responded in a conversation with reporters at his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

“I want to do everything I can, and I hope that there would be no political problem, because the world clearly sees that the Saudis have been strongly threatened,” he said.

Bush’s mention of a potential “political problem” appeared to refer to those in Congress who would oppose such a sale, presumably staunch supporters of Israel.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who spoke after Bush, was even more forceful on that point.

“I don’t think this is a situation that presents any threat whatsoever to Israel, and I would not expect there to be any opposition in that quarter to our effort to help the Saudis and our friends in the region deal with what is a threat to their very existence,” he said.

Cheney said any F-15Es would not be transferred in the short term, because the United States has yet to receive its full order from the St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Co. But he said such planes could be sold as part of a “longer-term package.”

Cheney discussed a possible sale of F-15Es to the kingdom during his most recent visit there, which ended last weekend.

JEWISH GROUPS NOT TAKING STAND YET

Arms sales to Saudi Arabia will likely be discussed Friday at a Pentagon meeting requested by Cheney with Jewish groups.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, one of the groups participating, said, “We have not taken a position on the sale” of F-15Es.

“We have been supporting the president’s actions” in the Persian Gulf crisis, and while “the Saudis remain at war with Israel,” he said, “obviously the situation requires careful consideration by the (pro-Israel) community.”

Hoenlein, who recently returned from meetings in Israel, said government officials there indicated the Jewish state “is in need of the wherewithal to defend itself. It doesn’t want to have American soldiers coming in.”

A knowledgeable source in the pro-Israel community said that while it would be concerned about any sale of the F-15E, it would be “a little more concerned” about any sale of Stinger antiaircraft missiles to the kingdom.

The source indicated that Jewish groups could be placated if any sale to the Saudis included some “offset” for Israel. In the case of an F-15E sale to the Saudis, that could mean additional F-15Es for the Israelis.

But the source said the Stingers are problematic, because they are “easily transportable” and could fall into the hands of enemy forces, unlike a fighter plane.

Congress blocked a proposed sales of F-15Es and Maverick anti-tank missiles to the Saudis in 1985. A year later, it blocked a sale of 200 Stinger launchers and missiles.

Any such sale of F-15Es or Stingers would be automatically reviewed by Congress, in contrast to emergency shipments to the kingdom of weaponry to be used by U.S. forces there.

In the three weeks since Iraq invaded Ku-wait, the United States has shipped to Saudi Arabia 12 F-15s, but they are the “C” and “D” models, rather than the more advanced F-15Es.

The Saudis have previously bought and received a total of 50 F-15Cs and F-15Ds, with 12 more on order from McDonnell Douglas.

For the moment, pro-Israel groups are not taking a formal position on a sale of F-15Es, since it is still hypothetical. Before taking a stand, Jewish groups also would want to know what kind of U.S. controls would be imposed on the planes, where they would be based and what, if any, “offsets” to Israel would be offered.

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