Mideast Trip by Pentagon Official Seen As Reassuring Signal from U.S.

A trip to the Middle East by a senior Pentagon official is being seen by some as a reassuring signal from the United States of continuing commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian autonomy accord.

While both American and Israeli officials are playing down the timing of the visit, it comes at a time when Israeli security concerns are mounting amid final preparations to hand over administration of the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho to the Palestinians.

Undersecretary for Defense Policy Frank Wisner will be the highest-ranking Pentagon official to visit the Middle East since the start of the Clinton administration.

One Israeli official described the trip as a “study tour” for Pentagon officials “to get to know people” in the region.

But Michael Eisenstadt, a military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the trip should be seen as a tangible symbol of continued U.S. support for the accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Wisner’s trip, set for Nov. 26 through Dec. 10, includes stops in Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Persian Gulf states.

NO MAJOR TREATIES EXPECTED

It follows Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s successful meeting here last week with Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who pledged continued U.S. support to help maintain Israel’s strong defense capabilities.

The Pentagon said it does not expect any major treaties or agreements to come out of the trip.

Instead, Pentagon officials are expecting to discuss with their Middle Eastern counterparts such topics as military cooperation, U.S. budgetary constraints and Defense Department philosophy in the post-Cold War era.

“The purpose,” said a Pentagon spokeswoman, “is to lay the groundwork for a spirit of new cooperation.”

The meetings between Wisner and Israeli officials will likely include discussion of U.S.-Israeli cooperation on technology and U.S. policy on weapons sales to Israel.

Last week, Rabin and Aspin discussed the possible Israeli purchase of the advanced F-15I fighter jet, and that is another potential topic for Wisner and his Israeli counterparts to discuss.

The F-15I deal has not been finalized.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that Israel and Egypt had asked to buy additional weapons from the United States.

Israel has requested the purchase of the Multiple Launch Rocket System, estimated to cost $97 million. Egypt wants to buy 340 M-60A3 tanks with thermal sights, costing some $84 million.

Neither the requests nor their timing were especially significant but just “happened to come through now,” said Eisenstadt.

He pointed out that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have already ordered the Multiple Launch Rocket System.

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