Reported Israeli Flights over Iraq Put New Strain in U.s.-israelities

U.S.-Israeli relations, strained in recent weeks over the issue of loan guarantees, hit a new snag this week with reports that Israeli air force jets had conducted a surprise reconnaissance mission over Iraq and illegally entered the airspace of several of the Jewish state’s Arab neighbors.

At the United Nations, Iraq formally protested the flights, which it said occurred last Friday, when four Israeli F-15 fighter jets entered Iraqi airspace for about 30 minutes.

In Israel, officials would neither confirm nor deny Iraq’s charges. Defense Ministry spokesman Danny Naveh said he had “no reaction.”

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ahmad Hussein said the planes entered Iraqi airspace from Syria and flew at low altitude. The F-15s then flew out of Iraq and entered Saudi airspace. The Washington Post said the F-15s apparently also flew over Jordan and Lebanon.

The last time Israel flew into Iraq was during its 1981 bombing of a planned Iraqi nuclear weapons plant at Osirak.

U.S. officials protested last Friday’s flights at the “highest level,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Wednesday. The complaints were lodged both in Washington and Jerusalem.

The Israeli action comes at a sensitive time, as the United States and Soviet Union seek to put the finishing touches on preparations for a Middle East peace conference they want to convene, if possible before the end of October.

Secretary of State James Baker is returning to the Middle East on Saturday evening and plans to be in Israel on Oct. 16 and 17, after stops in Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Fitzwater urged Wednesday that “actions not be taken that would disrupt the peace process.”

BAKER ‘DISTURBED’ ABOUT FLIGHTS

Pro-Israel activists here took issue with speculation that the flights over Iraq were a signal of Israel’s worries about the unfolding peace process.

They said the flights were designed to serve a military rather than political function and may have been carried out to learn more about recently unearthed Scud missile sites in western Iraq.

In Israel, Defense Minister Moshe Arens would not comment on the flights, but he stressed, “Israel takes whatever action it deems fit for its own defense and security.”

At the Israeli Embassy here, spokeswoman Ruth Yaron also would not confirm the flights. But she said that if they did occur, they were “done solely for security reasons. It’s totally cynical to try to portray that as something else.”

“One cannot fault Israel for being suspicious of Iraq,” she added.

In Washington, State Department spokes-woman Margaret Tutwiler said Baker was “disturbed” about the flights.

“We totally understand any Israeli concern about threats from Iraq,” she said. But she said the United States believes it is best for the United Nations to “take care of this problem.”

“There are teams that are going in and out of there constantly looking for” biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, she said. “To preserve the integrity and effectiveness of the U.N. mission, it is important that unilateral actions outside that process be avoided.”

The United Nations has been conducting helicopter surveillance flights over Iraq. On Tuesday, U.N. inspectors found 16 previously undisclosed Scud missile sites.

But one pro-Israel activist disputed the value of helicopter flights, compared to those by jet fighters, which can take better aerial reconnaissance photographs and can fly at faster speeds.

‘AFFRONT’ TO U.N. EFFORT

Another activist said Israel undertook the flights because the Iraqi threat to Israel heightened in recent weeks when President Bush was contemplating whether to again authorize the use of force against Iraq.

The threat to use force came when Iraq initially refused to give documents on its purported nuclear weapons program to U.N. inspectors, who ended up camping out in an Iraqi parking lot for several days while the standoff continued.

One activist said Israel was basically satisfied with U.S. intelligence-sharing on Iraq until about a month ago when the inspector standoff took place.

At that point, “the need for stepped-up cooperation was greater,” the activist said. “Some of it was done and some of it was not, and there were problems. But I think they are being resolved.”

Asked about a possible Israeli follow-up mission, the activist said, “I have the impression that the need for it has gone down.”

He added that U.S. officials view the Israeli mission as “an affront” not to the peace process but to the U.N. effort to dismantle Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs.

U.S. officials feel that “the United States is engaged in a delicate situation with Iraq, and when something unexpected happens, that complicates their lives,” the activist explained.

The Israeli action was “not a plus in the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said.

(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)

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