NEW YORK (Oct. 12)
Saudi Arabian officials assured the American Jewish Committee this week that they have no intention of using data from a controversial spy satellite for military purposes.
The assurances came as AJCommittee leaders were in Riyadh as guests of Saudi King Fahd.
“We came to learn about a country that until recent years was not accessible to us,” AJCommittee President Alfred Moses said in a telephone interview.
The Saudis first received a Jewish group, the American Jewish Congress, in January 1992.
The satellite, which has emerged as an issue in Washington in recent weeks, is to be launched in 1997 by Eyeglass International, a private consortium based in the United States that would resell the photographs.
The satellite images will have a resolution of one meter (about 3 feet), a substantial improvement over the images now available from commercial satellites. Satellite images of that resolution were considered sensitive military technology, until the Clinton administration eased requirements earlier this year to promote American exports.
But while the photographs would apparently be available to all customers, opposition to the satellite emerged after a Saudi company expressed interest in joining the consortium.
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Last week, 64 senators wrote to U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, concerned about the implications for Israel’s intelligence edge if the deal went through. The senators noted that the Saudi company was planning to establish a ground station to receive the data in Riyadh.
Moses said his five-member delegation was told the satellite “is not a governmental issue,” but an investment by a private Saudi citizen.
Saudi government officials said they did not plan on using the satellite information, saying that purchase of the private data would conflict with their interests of maintaining an ongoing exchange of intelligence information with the United States, according to Moses.
But one pro-Israel activist in Washington said that the Eyeglass satellite would offer information unavailable through information exchanges, since “I don’t believe we give the Saudis photographs of the Israelis, or the Israelis photographs of the Saudis.”
Overall, Moses, speaking by telephone from the Saudi capital, said the visit came at a good time, since the current crisis with Iraq reinforces the importance of the U.S. in Saudi eyes.
The visit also came on the heels of the Saudi announcement of an end to the Arab boycott of companies doing business with Israel, giving the AJCommittee an opportunity to congratulate officials on the move.
“In the course of our discussions, there was obviously disagreement,” he said, citing as an example his request that the Saudis play a stronger role in the ongoing multilateral regional negotiations.
Moses, who has been named American ambassador to Romania, said the high point of the visit was addressing a dozen or more members of the chamber of commerce.
“It was an opportunity to dispel some of the myths that exist in the minds of Saudis who know little about Jews,” he said.
In the wake of the terrorist attack in Jerusalem on Sunday that killed two people, Moses reported “denunciation” of the attack by the Saudis he spoke to, although there were some “references to Baruch Goldstein,” the Israeli settler who killed 29 Muslims at a Hebron mosque earlier this year.
“The Saudis are very sensitive to terrorism. They see it as a threat to the Saudi regime. They see Iran and Iraq as the major threats to the area. They don’t see Israel as major threat.
“They are anxious to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. We were repeatedly told, ‘there are no conflicts with Israel at this point,’ ” Moses said.