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Arens Agrees to American Request for Investigation of Arms Charges

As the White House denied that U.S. officials are trying to undermine relations with Jerusalem, the State Department announced Monday that it would send a fact-finding team to Israel to probe charges that the Jewish state transferred U.S.-made weapons or technology to other countries.

State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said the purpose of the mission would be to “ensure that there are not any misunderstandings on technology transfer questions.”

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens discussed the subject Monday during an hour-long meeting at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and said afterward that Israel would cooperate with any U.S. investigation.

Arens told reporters that Cheney cited “intelligence information that the United States had” to back up the allegations, which Israel has categorically denied.

In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Monday that Israel has never violated any clause or condition governing transfers of U.S. technology to a third country.

Speaking to reporters in northern Israel, Shamir charged that unidentified American officials were spreading “slander and lies” aimed at discrediting Israel.

In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater denied that the United States is trying to harm relations with Israel.

“We want good relations with Israel. We’ve worked long and hard for good relations,” he said.

Arens, when asked about any U.S. smear campaign, said, “I don’t know who’s behind it, because the people who have put forth these allegations have insisted on remaining anonymous.”

Asked how serious a crisis the technology transfer issue creates in U.S.-Israel relations, Arens replied, “Well, I hope it’s not a crisis at all, because the allegations are groundless.”

‘OVERRIDING CONCERN’ IS PEACE PROCESS

One of the most serious allegations, first made public March 12 in The Washington Times, is that Israel transferred U.S. technology on the Patriot missile-defense system to China.

When asked about that Monday, Arens said he told Cheney “that there was no ground at all for the allegation that Israel had sold Patriot missiles or Patriot missile technology to China.”

Arens also dismissed the possibility that a rogue operation to transfer technology was conducted without Israeli government permission.

Arens did not speak about other allegations, that Israel may in the past have sold anti-tactical ballistic missile technology to South Africa, and cluster bombs to Ethiopia and Chile.

One of the allegations involving Ethiopia arose two years ago when rebel groups there alleged that forces aligned with the government, which has since been deposed, had dropped Israeli-made cluster bombs in civilian areas. Such bombs tend to inflict more casualties than ordinary bombs by spreading smaller charges over a wide area.

At the time, the Israeli government denied those allegations and said it had only supplied light weaponry to the Ethiopian government, such as guns and rifles.

Allegations of this kind have surfaced during Arens’ other recent trips to Washington, a pro-Israel lobbyist here pointed out. He said the pattern is beginning to look like the American equivalent of the Israeli government’s inauguration of a new Jewish settlement in the West Bank each time Secretary of State James Baker visits Israel.

The lobbyist played down suggestions from pro-Israel circles here that the timing of the charges may be linked to the standoff on Israel’s request that the United States guarantee $10 billion in loans to help immigrant absorption.

Instead, the lobbyist suggested that the charges came to the fore simply to coincide with Arens’ trip to Washington and with this week’s biannual meeting of the U.S.-Israel Joint Political Military Planning Group.

Arens told the United Jewish Appeal’s young leadership conference here on Monday that he first heard of the allegations upon his arrival in the United States last week.

The defense minister acknowledged that U.S.-Israeli relations are at a difficult stage because of the loan guarantees standoff. But he expressed confidence that the friendship between the two countries would remain solid despite occasional differences.

“Our overriding concern is the peace process,” he stressed. “We want good relations to further the peace process.”

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

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