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Smarting from Arens-bush Session, Levy Cancels Meeting with Baker

The deepening rivalry between two senior Cabinet ministers unexpectedly ruffled Israel’s increasingly smooth relations with the United States on Tuesday.

Foreign Minister David Levy abruptly canceled a meeting with Secretary of State James Baker, scheduled Friday in Washington.

Levy made clear that he felt his foreign policy turf was being usurped by Defense Minster Moshe Arens, who met with Baker Monday evening after meetings earlier in the day with President Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

Levy’s pique was evident from the terse statement his office issued explaining why the foreign minister “postponed” his meeting with Baker.

“In view of the meetings held by the defense minister with President Bush, Secretary Cheney and Secretary Baker, the foreign minister thinks he should first learn the subjects discussed in the meetings as well as the understandings and conclusions reached,” the statement said.

Arens, who returned to Israel on Tuesday, said he did not discuss any diplomatic issues with the secretary of state. He met with Levy on Tuesday evening to brief him on his discussions with the Bush administration.

In Washington, the State Department expressed surprise at the cancellation. Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said she could offer no reason why Levy canceled a meeting that he had requested in the first place.

SHAMIR SURPRISED BY MOVE

She said Arens had limited himself to areas within his defense portfolio and that Baker and he had engaged in only a “general discussion.”

Another State Department official said he did not think Baker was “trying to do an end run around Levy.”

Levy reportedly had been assured when Arens decided to go to Washington just four days before him that he would meet only with Cheney on security matters and would not deal with the political aspects of the Persian Gulf war.

Foreign Ministry sources said Levy was notified of Arens’ meeting with Bush at the White House only three hours before it was held and that he learned of Arens’ meeting with Baker from the political correspondent of Ha’aretz.

The foreign minister was not notified that Prime Minster Yitzhak Shamir gave Arens a message to convey to Bush nor apparently did Shamir apprise Levy of its contents when the two met Monday.

Ha’aretz reported that the Baker-Arens meeting was arranged last month, on the second day of the Persian Gulf war, when the first Iraqi Scud missile hit Israel.

According to the newspaper, Baker telephoned Arens immediately after the attack and was assured by him that Israel would not automatically retaliate.

At that point, Baker expressed the wish to see the Israeli defense minister on his next trip to Wahington, Ha’aretz said.

Shamir, meanwhile, expressed surprise at Levy’s move Tuesday, which he said he learned about from a radio report. He said he hoped Levy would go to Washington as scheduled.

Arens’ meeting with Baker lasted an hour, the State Department said Tuesday.

The defense minister told Baker “that he had just had a very in-depth, detailed discussion” with Cheney and that “there was no reason to go into that level of detail with Baker,” Tutwiler reported.

She added that Baker had sat in on Arens’ meeting with Bush earlier in the day.

ARENS INTERRUPTS TO PHONE WIFE

Tutwiler said Arens and Baker discussed in a “general way” additional aid Israel might request from the United States. Arens informed Baker of Israel’s extra defense preparedness costs during the Persian Gulf crisis, which have been estimated at $3 billion.

They did not discuss the peace process or Israel’s resumption of raids on Palestine Liberation Organization strongholds in southern Lebanon, Tutwiler said.

As was the case during the Arens-Bush meeting, news of an Iraqi missile attack on Israel reached Arens during his meeting with Baker. The defense minister excused himself from the meeting to call his wife, who lives in the area of Israel where the missile hit, Tutwiler said.

Arens and Levy, each considered a candidate for Shamir’s job when the prime minister leaves office, have crossed swords before. Arens’ visited Washington last September, just a few days before a planned visit by Levy.

Levy’s cancellation leaves the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council without one of its keynote speakers for its annual plenum, which begins Sunday in Miami.

The plenum will feature addresses by Vice President Dan Quayle, Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval and Dennis Ross, head of the State Department’s policy planning staff.

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

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