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Cheney Says Gulf War Gave Israel Greater Military Edge in Mideast

Israel’s military superiority over its Arab neighbors has been increased greatly by the destruction of Iraq’s offensive military capability, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told a largely Jewish audience here Tuesday.

The United States remains committed to Israel’s security and to maintaining its qualitative military edge, Cheney told the national leadership assembly of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

It is “important to recognize that the threat to Israel has been substantially” decreased by the successful outcome of the Persian Gulf war, Cheney said. “Israel’s qualitative edge has accordingly increased substantially.”

Cheney said that as a result of the Gulf crisis, relations between Israel and the United States are “as close as they have ever been.”

He explained that the relationship that previously existed and the experience of strategic cooperation had made it easier for Israel and the United States to move quickly to meet the threat posed to Israel by Iraqi Scud missiles.

But Cheney also pointed out that without the longstanding U.S. defense relationship with Saudi Arabia, the United States would not have been able to mount the large force in the Gulf needed to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

He noted that more than 25 percent of the military sales to Saudi Arabia had been to build bases and infrastructure which in the Gulf war was used by the U.S. and other coalition forces.

These bases “do not threaten Israel or any other country,” he said.

In an obvious dig at the years of opposition to Saudi arms sales from the Conference of Presidents, Cheney said, “No one can say now, as some have over the years, that Saudi Arabia has no one it needs to defend” against.

His comment may have been an early attempt to head off a fight over a $14 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia that the Bush administration is expected to propose later this year.

TWO-TRACK DIPLOMATIC APPROACH

Some 200 persons attended the daylong leadership assembly at George Washington University to express appreciation for the administration’s leadership in the Gulf crisis, pride in U.S. troops and solidarity with Israel, said Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents.

The assembly, which had originally been scheduled to express support for the war, came a day before Secretary of State James Baker was to leave on a mission to the Middle East.

Baker, who will be making his first visit to Israel, is expected to propose a “two-track” approach as he seeks to find out how the Arab countries and Israel now want to move ahead in the peace process.

This approach was explained to the leadership assembly by Dennis Ross, the State Department’s director of policy planning, who will accompany Baker.

One track would lead to the Arab states establishing peace with Israel and the other would lead to Israeli reconciliation with the Palestinians, Ross said. Both efforts would be parallel.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy seemed to move toward this approach in a message he sent to the assembly, which was read by Albert Ben-Abu, his adviser on world Jewish affairs.

Levy said the Arab countries must agree to open negotiations with Israel without preconditions. “Within this framework, the Palestinian issue will be addressed and, together with the residents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, an appropriate resolution will be found.”

Likewise, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, in a telephone call to the conference, said that Israel is ready to talk with any Arab country about peace without preconditions. “I believe that the events of the past six months have given even greater validity to our peace plan of May 1988,” he added.

Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval said the Gulf war has shown the importance of territory as a buffer against hostile neighbors. But he added that if the Arab countries were willing to make peace, Israel might be more forthcoming on the Palestinian issue. Shoval left the conference to fly to Israel, where he will work on the preparations for the Baker visit.

Also addressing the assembly were Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), House Speaker Thomas Foley (D-Wash.) and Robert Michel (R-Ill.), the House minority leader.

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