TEL AVIV (Oct. 10)
Ignoring increasingly strained relations with Washington, Israeli leaders of both major parties are hotly defending Israel’s right to conduct reconnaissance flights over Iraq if it considers them vital to its security.
“Our assessment is that Iraq still has the capacity to launch missiles at us, and therefore all related intelligence is helpful,” Defense Minister Moshe Arens declared.
But with one exception, none of the politicians who waxed indignant over U.S. complaints admitted outright that there had indeed been such flights last Friday.
U.S. officials protested the Oct. 4 flights at the highest level, saying they violated the airspace of several Arab countries just a week before Secretary of State James Baker was due to go back to the Middle East for yet another attempt to set up an Arab-Israeli peace conference.
Iraq lodged a formal protest with the United Nations.
Israeli officials, who refused to confirm or deny the flights, nevertheless indicated that their purpose would be to gather information about hitherto unknown Scud missile-launching sites found by U.N. observer teams in western Iraq.
Except for Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, officials who discussed the subject on the radio and television invariably prefaced their remarks about the alleged flights with the qualifying statement, “if they took place.”
Labor Party leader Shimon Peres said Israel did not need anyone’s permission to overfly sites in Iraq which represented a threat to Israel. He added, however, that the timing and routing should be carefully considered.
‘THE HEIGHT OF CYNICISM’
Likud spokesmen took their cue from Arens, who criticized the U.S. reaction.
Arens said Wednesday that he did not believe Israeli reconnaissance flights could jeopardize the proposed peace conference.
“I don’t want to enter into the operational actions of the air force. I want to say unequivocally that any responsibility for defending the security of Israel rests with its government and we will continue to do so as we see fit,” Arens said.
He dismissed Iraq’s U.N. protest as “the height of cynicism and hypocrisy” and suggested that the Americans probably complained at the urging of Saudi Arabia.
Defense Ministry spokesman Danny Naveh said Israel would continue to take any “step necessary” for its self-defense.
Sharon referred directly to the overflights without qualifiers. “The flights are essential for security,” he said on a television interview Wednesday night.
He hinted, as did Arens, that the United States did not always supply Israel with complete intelligence data and that Israel must see to its own security needs.