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Bush Mideast Arms Control Plan Could Be Disadvantage for Israel

The pro-Israel community had mixed reactions Wednesday to President Bush’s new arms control initiative, with some activists expressing concern that it would benefit the Arab world more than Israel.

Bush unveiled the plan Wednesday afternoon in a commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The initiative’s most ambitious provisions call for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East and North Africa, a freeze on the acquisition of surface-to-surface missiles by countries in the region and the eventual elimination of missiles already in the countries’ arsenals.

Surface-to-surface missiles, such as the Scuds that Iraq used against Israel and Saudi Arabia, are considered more of an offensive threat in the Middle East than air-launched or sea-launched missiles.

In Jerusalem, Avi Pazner, media adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, did not comment on these proposals directly.

But he said Israel “attaches great importance to the efforts of the United States regarding the arms race in our region.” Both countries “share the concern about the potential for destruction in the Middle East,” he said.

Pazner welcomed Bush’s plan to convene a conference in Paris of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to consider guidelines for limiting future conventional and unconventional weapons technology transfers to the region.

But he went beyond Bush in calling for all arms suppliers to the region — not just the five permanent Security Council members — to “completely stop the flow of weaponry.”

THE PLAN ‘HURTS ISRAEL’

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who arrived in Israel late Wednesday, was expected to discuss the initiative with Israeli officials on Thursday.

In Washington, Douglas Bloomfield, former legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said Israel would benefit from the plan if all arms suppliers beyond the top five agreed to such guidelines.

He said the Arab nations have a distinct edge over Israel now in the ability to pay for an expansion of their conventional arsenals.

Another former official of the pro-Israel lobby, Morris Amitay, said of the Bush plan: “On the surface, I think it hurts Israel.”

Amitay, who formerly served as AIPAC’s executive director, expressed concern about the initiative’s call for an eventual elimination of nuclear weapons from the Middle East. He said that many believe Israel now has “deliverable nuclear weapons,” unlike its Arab neighbors.

Israel’s nuclear deterrent is needed because the Arab countries enjoy an overwhelming conventional arms advantage over Israel, Amity said. Absent any parity in the conventional sphere, a nuclear-free Middle East would “put Israel at a great disadvantage,” he said.

In New York, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, agreed that Israel cannot be asked to give up its nuclear advantage without a reduction in the Arab world’s quantitative conventional edge.

Any nuclear freeze agreement has to be in the “context of a larger understanding” on conventional arms control, he said.

On the proposed missile ban, one pro-Israel lobbyist, who requested anonymity, said it could make Israel more secure if it were global. If such a ban applied only to Middle Eastern and North African countries, Israel’s neighbors could be suddenly rearmed with them, he said.

Including Other Arms Exporters Also in the plan is a call on all nations in the region to open their nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

Israel might agree to such inspections if Israeli officials could participate in the verification of Arab countries’ nuclear arsenals, the lobbyist said. “Israel won’t rely on just the IAEA to do so.”

The most likely aspect of the Bush plan to win acceptance is a proposed meeting in Paris next month of the top arms suppliers to the Middle East and North Africa. That meeting, which would be attended by China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, would hammer out guidelines for limiting arms transfers to the region.

The guidelines would restrain the top five countries from selling nuclear arms and associated technology, as well as any destabilizing conventional arms.

Amitay and the other pro-Israel lobbyist said such guidelines should be extended to other arms suppliers, especially North Korea, which recently sold Scud-C missiles to Syria, and Czechoslovakia, which is selling the Syrians T-72 tanks.

But Amitay said even this would not stem the flow of arms to the Arab states. There are many Third World countries “willing to sell to the Arabs or act as intermediaries,” he said.

(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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