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Possible Sale of F-15s to Saudis May Strain U.S. Israeli Ties Anew

No sooner had Israel settled a longstanding dispute with Washington over loan guarantees than another potential irritant in U.S.-Israeli relations emerged this week.

Administration officials said Wednesday that President Bush is “seriously considering” a $5 billion sale of advanced F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia.

The sale has been under consideration by the administration for several months, but until this week, the word was that the White House would not push for it right away, possibly not till after the November elections.

The sudden resurrection of the issue this week raised speculation that the Saudi sale had become a quid pro quo exacted by the administration in exchange for agreeing to provide Israel with guarantees for up to $10 billion in loans for immigrant absorption.

But administration officials denied any such linkage.

Any proposed sale of F-15 aircraft is likely to encounter strong opposition on Capitol Hill. And visiting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made clear Wednesday that the Jewish state would not remain silent.

“I don’t believe any government of Israel or responsible politician can but oppose sales of arms to an Arab country that continues to stress (it is) in a state of war with Israel,” Rabin said following a speech he gave at the National Press Club.

He said the sale could jeopardize Israel’s qualitative military edge to which the United States says it is committed.

“People say Saudi Arabia is a friend,” he said, “but I heard the same argument about Saddam Hussein” four or five months before the invasion of Kuwait.

“In the region, the unpredicted happens more than the predicted,” he added.

OBEY CONCERNED ABOUT COSTS

Rabin spoke at length about a shift in Israel’s national priorities and the commitment of the new government to “exploit the opportunities” of the Arab-Israeli peace negotations, scheduled to resume here Aug. 24.

He stressed the importance of a transitional period leading up to Palestinian autonomy, saying any attempt to ignore deeply rooted suspicions and move too quickly would “lead nowhere.”

Rabin said it was “very unfortunate” that historically, the Palestinian leadership “aspired to everything” and “remained with nothing.”

At the same time, he made it clear that he is eager to inject new momentum into what he prefers to call the “peacemaking process.”

He said he would offer the Palestinians a date for general elections in the territories, which would produce representatives to an administrative council enabling the Palestinians to run their own day-to-day affairs.

Responding to a question about the loan guarantees, Rabin was eager to dispel any notion that the package would be a burden to U.S. taxpayers.

“I stress these are loans, not grants,” he said. “The record proves we have never failed to pay our international debt on time” and “we have never asked the United States to write off debts like other countries in the region.”

But Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, said he was disturbed by costs that could be incurred under the agreement’s terms.

The guarantees could cost the United States millions of dollars in money set aside to cover possible default, though Israel has offered to provide this money from the amount being borrowed.

In any case, the current unpopularity of foreign aid ensures that the loan package will come under close scrutiny on Capitol Hill when it is offered in legislative form next month. Still, it is expected to be approved shortly thereafter.

MEETS WITH CLINTON AND GORE

Rabin, who reportedly was warmly received when he visited with members of Congress on Wednesday, stressed the loans would be used to absorb the 400,000 recent immigrants in Israel and to create conditions that would attract hundreds of thousands more. The prime minister also good-naturedly dodged questions about the U.S. presidential election. “The last thing I want to be accused of is intervening in domestic policies here,” he said.

In an effort not to appear partisan, Rabin met shortly after his speech with Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee.

After the meeting, Clinton told reporters he reassured Rabin that he is fully committed to maintaining a strong relationship with Israel and that he understands its continued strategic importance to the United States.

The Arkansas governor also reiterated his strong support for the loan guarantees and said he “conveyed my intense desire not to let partisan politics” impede the Mideast peace process.

Rabin, for his part, refused to be drawn into reporters’ questions about Clinton’s foreign policy experience, saying he was not in a position to pass judgment.

When asked whether the two had found anything in common, the 70-year-old prime minister quipped, “I’m much older.”

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