WASHINGTON, Oct. 8 (JTA) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reconsidering his decision to allow an Israeli government-owned company to export thousands of semiautomatic guns to the United States. After Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) read the riot act at a meeting last week to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Netanyahu agreed to review his position, congressional and Israeli sources said. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, handed Feinstein a two-page letter from the premier that defended Israel Military Industries’ plan to export modified versions of the Uzi and Galil weapons to the United States for commercial sale. The letter basically said, “It’s legal and we’re doing it,” according to sources familiar with the letter. After Feinstein labeled the response “disingenuous and unsatisfactory,” Ben-Elissar asked for a few more days to consider her response. This week, Israeli officials told Feinstein that the government is reviewing its position. The proposed sale has drawn the fire of two-thirds of the Senate’s Democrats, who are urging President Clinton to step in to stop the sale. In addition to Feinstein, five Jewish senators signed a letter to Clinton. “Mr. President, we do not need more assault weapons on the streets of America. We urge you to use your executive authority as President to prevent this transfer of arms to American streets on behalf of public safety,” the 30 senators wrote. A similar letter from Rep. Walter Capps (D-Calif.) has attracted 22 House members, including six Jewish lawmakers. Clinton has not yet responded to the request. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms recently approved modified versions of the Uzi and Galil for import. Israel Military Industries modified the guns to avoid the 1994 assault weapons ban that included other versions of these guns. President Bush originally banned the import of Uzis and Galils after five children were killed and 30 wounded in a California schoolyard by a similar weapon in 1989. At least a dozen other countries have received similar permits to export their guns. Feinstein has said that any state-owned companies will face similar congressional pressure. “It is my hope that the Israeli government will lead the way and set an example that others will follow,” Feinstein said. Last month Feinstein, along with 29 of her colleagues, sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requesting that he stop the export. “It is my personal hope,” Feinstein said in a recent speech on the Senate floor, “that a nation that understands perhaps better than most the paramount importance of any government’s responsibility to ensure the safety and security of its people will understand that there is a moral issue at stake here that far outweighs any commercial value the sale of these weapons holds for their country.” In an effort to ratchet up pressure on the Israeli government, Feinstein sent the letter to 18 Jewish groups that she listed at the bottom of her letter to Netanyahu. The National Jewish Democratic Council urged members to sign the Feinstein letter to Netanyahu. “As an American Jewish organization we ask that you don’t confuse your steadfast support of Israel with the sale of Israeli-made assault weapons in the United States,” NJDC wrote to members of Congress. Signing the letter “signifies your commitment to the safety of American streets. It is not a reflection of your support for Israel.” Although the American Israel Public Affairs Committee officially took no position on the issue, at least three House aides said AIPAC lobbyists, when asked, had urged them not to sign the letter. For now, the most vocal Jewish support for Feinstein has come from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Feinstein’s initiative reflects our shared concern about the transfer of assault weapons to the U.S. by foreign companies and governments,” the group said in a recent statement.
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