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Reported U.S. Arms Offer to Israel Would Enhance Defenses Against Iraq

The Bush administration’s reported promise of up to $1 billion worth of advanced weaponry to Israel, if true, would provide the Jewish state with immediate long-range aerial capability to thwart any Iraqi offensive.

The intended transfer of sophisticated military hardware reportedly is meant to strengthen Israel’s hand in the event of an Iraqi attack and to compensate for last week’s $2.3 billion emergency arms sale to Saudi Arabia for the same purpose.

Details of the arms package are still being hammered out between Washington and Jerusalem, but the deal is said to include F-15 and F-16 fighter planes, Patriot ground-to-air missiles, M-60 battle tanks and Apache anti-tank helicopters.

However, Israeli newspapers reported Monday that the deal could be for smaller than the $1 billion figure cited Saturday by The New York Times.

Ze’ev Schiff, Ha’aretz’s well-informed military and political commentator, said the quote of $1 billion was a guess with little basis.

“If the plan were to supply Israel with new items, especially produced for Israel and at list price, the figure could be even larger,” he said. But the list of arms appears to be of “older equipment, taken from stock or transferred from army units where they have been in use,” and therefore would be “far below $1 billion.”

TIMING MORE IMPORTANT THAN AMOUNT

Analysts here say that the speed with which Israel can acquire the sophisticated equipment is far more important than the amount of it.

The military hardware would significantly enhance the Israel Defense Force’s aerial deterrent capability in a very short period of time, wrote Ron Ben-Yishai, military analyst for the mass-circulation daily Yediot Achronot.

Ben-Yishai said the additional defense aid will enable Israel to receive, within the next few months, F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and Apache anti-tank helicopters, which Israel had intended to obtain outside the regular U.S. military aid.

The main new item would be Patriot ground-to-air missiles, which can intercept incoming missiles. They would be a difficult shield for Iraq to penetrate.

The deal also includes an unknown number of U.S. Army surplus M-60 battle tanks “at a very good price,” similar to that which Egypt received a few months ago.

In ordinary conditions, Israel would not acquire these tanks, because they would come at the expense of producing Israeli-made Merkava III tanks, which are far superior to the M-60s. Nonetheless, it appears that the proposed cost of these tanks is attractive enough to convince the IDF that their acquisition is worthwhile.

Conditions of payment for the arms are not presently clear, but Israel will likely demand that the entire sum be a grant that would not come at the expense of future military aid.

It was reported in Washington that the bid for additional military assistance had come from Israel and was approved in principle by the Pentagon and National Security Council officials at the White House.

WELCOMED BY JEWISH LEADERS

David Ivry, director general of Israel’s Defense Ministry, was in Washington last week to discuss stepped-up U.S. military aid with the State and Defense departments.

Those talks will be followed by a more formal meeting on the Joint Security Assistance Planning Group.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney met with a delegation of American Jewish leaders on Aug. 24 to discuss the emergency arms sale to Saudi Arabia and possible “offsets” for Israel.

Reports of the U.S. plans to sell Israel sophisticated weapons were welcomed in New York over the weekend by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which took part in the meeting with Cheney.

“First, it comes as positive recognition that President Bush places high value on Israel as a strategic ally, whose commitment to democratic values is buttressed by a determination to defend itself against aggression,” said Seymour Reich, chairman of the conference.

“Second, it is a warning to Saddam Hussein against any further military adventures he may be contemplating that would involve Israel in the current crisis,” Reich said.

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