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Jewish Groups Press U.S. to Offset Saudi Sale with Extra Aid for Israel

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American Jewish groups are deeply concerned about a new $20 billion U.S. arms package to Saudi Arabia. But they will not oppose it if the Bush administration counters by boosting weapons transfers to Israel, pro-Israel activists say.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations warned this week that the unprecedented sale would “further endanger the stability of an already volatile region” and would “inexorably erode” Israel’s qualitative military edge.

In a statement issued late Monday, it called for a “careful and deliberative process to assure that all possible implications are thoroughly considered prior to any final action.”

“There’s no emergency, so we don’t have to rush it,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive director, said Tuesday.

The Conference of Presidents, which represents 46 American Jewish groups, is seeking to meet next week with senior U.S. officials, possibly including Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, to clarify the details of the Saudi package.

It now looks as if the administration will not formally send the proposed package to Congress until next week, at which point lawmakers would have 30 days-to-vote it down or let it go through automatically.

Israel, for its part, “has some very immediate needs” that need to be addressed before early next month, when Congress adjourns for the rest of the year, said Hoenlein. But he said it is up to Israeli military planners to determine what needs are most immediate.

$1 BILLION ISRAELI SHOPPING LIST

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens on Monday presented Cheney with a detailed shopping list, including $1 billion in additional military aid, expedited deliveries of previously purchased weapons and “creative financing” arrangements for various weapons, such as permission to lease F-15 or F-16 fighter planes.

Cheney did not give Israel any concrete assurances on additional aid or weaponry, Arens told reporters Monday. “These meetings generally are not intended to provide assurances,” the defense minister said after the 75-minute session at the Pentagon.

The two leaders reportedly held an additional, unscheduled meeting on Tuesday. But neither the Pentagon nor the Israeli Embassy had any information on that session.

With the U.S. budget for the 1991 fiscal year up in the air, it appears difficult for any aid increase to occur within the few weeks before Congress adjourns. And “creative financing” arrangements are highly controversial because of the possibility that loaned weapons could be destroyed in the highly volatile Middle East.

Hoenlein said Israel needs “offsets” to the proposed Saudi sale because everyone agrees a package of such magnitude will be “destabilizing for the region and in terms of Israel’s security.”

The Persian Gulf crisis has also a “tremendous impact” on Israel’s economy, Hoenlein said, pointing to declines in tourism and investment, and increases in gas and oil prices.

He did not call outright for the United States to cancel Israel’s $4.5 billion U.S. debt, but said that if other countries, such as Egypt, are getting that benefit, then “certainly Israel needs to be considered.”

NO F-15ES OR AWACS PLANES

The most striking thing about the Saudi package besides its size is that it would not significantly help Saudi Arabia in the short term.

The major weapons in it could not be delivered until the mid-1990s, unless taken from existing U.S. stocks in Western Europe, a pro-Israel analyst said Tuesday.

Depleting U.S. defenses there and elsewhere would be unpopular with members of Congress, despite the diminished threat from the Soviet Union, the analyst said.

The Saudi package is reported to include 24 F-15 fighter planes, 26 Patriot missile air-defense batteries, 385 M-1A1 Abrams tanks and hundreds of TOW missiles.

Still to be clarified is where the weapons would be stationed in Saudi Arabia, whether the Saudis would hire mercenaries to operate them and what security arrangements would be made.

One thing that is clear is that the Bush administration will sell the C, D and F models of the F-15 to the Saudis, but not the F-15E, as Cheney promised Jewish groups at a Pentagon meeting last month. The F-15E has a much greater range than the other models and is particularly effective in anti-tank warfare.

The administration also apparently will not sell additional AWACS surveillance planes to the Saudis or multiple-launch rocket systems, which would be highly objectionable to Israel and its supporters on Capitol Hill.

However, with acquisition of the Patriots, the Saudis would arguably have the securest air defense in the world — even more so than the United States — because of the smaller land mass it has to defend, the pro-Israel analyst argued.

Such a strong defense could lead Arab military planners to argue that “if we want to attack Israel, now is the time,” the analyst said.

LAWMAKERS VOICE CONCERN

Members of Congress expressed concern about the proposed sale during a hearing Tuesday of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) warned the administration not to “use the pressure of this crisis to sneak through a $25 billion sale, because the results will be mind-boggling.”

Rep. Mel Levine (D.Calif.) warned that the Saudi sale “will simply erase that edge” in military sophistication now held by Israel.

But Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) said that if the United States does not sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, the Saudis will turn to the West European countries or even the Soviet Union, with which it is improving relations.

The United States would be hard-pressed to say to the Saudis that “this Congress doesn’t want your business,” said Leach.

Levine indicated that a smaller arms package to the Saudis would have gone through Congress without a problem. But when Bush “threw in the entire kitchen sink, it got our attention,” he said.

John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs, told the panel that President Bush would not agree to the sale until he had consulted informally with members of Congress. A briefing for lawmakers was scheduled for Wednesday.

Kelly also told the panel, “We will be working with Israel on a security package for them.” He said the proposed package would be sent to Congress “in the near future.”

Henry Rowen, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told the panel that “everything is under consideration. The president really hasn’t decided these matters.”

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