News Analysis: U.S. Military Aid to Israel Enhanced by Election Campaign, Peace Process

The Bush administration’s recent military pledge to Israel — unusual in its generosity and in the strength of its commitment – - reflects the president’s wobbly standing in his re-election efforts and the quickening pace of progress in the Middle East peace talks, analysts here say.

A Sept. 26 U.S. pledge to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors caps weeks of discussions launched in August when President Bush hosted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for a day of meetings at his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

American assurances to Jerusalem were recently underscored in a letter to Rabin from acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, which promised to maintain U.S. military aid to Israel at its current level of $1.8 billion a year.

In Washington, the State Department confirmed Monday that “in addition to the measures that were announced by the White House on Sept. 26, the acting secretary expressed our intention to maintain, subject to the approval of Congress, and overall foreign assistance budget levels, the current levels of security assistance to Israel.”

Defense sources here say the particularly generous arms package and long-range commitments that have evolved in discussions between Israel and the United States resulted from three factors:

* The desire to ensure smooth and rapid congressional authorization of the sale of 72 advanced F-15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia by providing a compensatory package to Israel.

* Bush’s poor standing in the presidential race and his consequent wish to save jobs, leading to approval of such packages as the sale of 150 F-16 aircraft to Taiwan.

* Progress in the Middle East peace process following the June elections in Israel that brought a Labor government to power.

Israelis saw Rabin’s visit to the United States as an opportunity to “clear the table” of accumulated old affairs on both sides and to cast a new mold for U.S. commitment to the security of Israel, according to an analysis in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Washington has not hastened to comply with every request by Israel, preferring to gain maximum political advantage from gradual pronouncements of aid and reaping a succession of headlines in the Israeli media.

But the administration has carried out its commitment, made on the eve of Rabin’s visit, to examine in a positive spirit requests for continued military aid at current levels.

It has also come through with gifts of weapons promised in the past, said Ha’aretz.

The United States said it would give Israel priority in delivery of surplus military equipment, even offering such items as the two-seater Skyhawk aircraft and the Yasour transport helicopter.

It has also announced it will present Israel with 25 Apache and 10 Black Hawk helicopters, as well as 70 Patriot anti-missile missiles.

At the same time it has stated it will store a considerable amount of military equipment in Israel, valued at about $700 million. The equipment would be ready for use by U.S. armed forces but could also be drawn upon by the Israel Defense Force in the event of an emergency.

Also to be posted in Israel are Harpoon sea-to-sea missiles and “smart” artillery ammunition.

A letter from U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to Rabin has promised a strengthening in military cooperation, access to advanced technology and Israeli participation in the anti-missile Global Protection System. Implementation will be discussed by experts on both sides.

The United States, for its part, continued to insist it be allowed to interrogate former Israeli air force Brig. Gen. Rami Dotan about a bribery scandal involving U.S. defense contractors.

The refusal of the previous Shamir government to allow questioning of Dotan, now serving a 13-year sentence in Israel, led to the brink of a crisis with Washington.

With the administration threatening to reconsider the level of its assistance, Rabin agreed to send State Attorney Dorit Beinish to Washington, where an agreement was reached to allow indirect interrogation of Dotan. The arrangement provides Israeli supervision of the questions and answers, to prevent Israeli security from being compromised.

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