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Hearing Shows Israel at Crux of U.S. Missile Defense Plan

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The threat posed to Israel from Iran and the damage to Israeli deterrence from last summer’s Lebanon war play a critical role in new U.S. plans for missile defense, a congressional hearing revealed.

The May 3 session also dropped a bombshell: A senior congressman claimed that an Iranian crew was behind the missile attack on an Israeli Navy ship off Lebanon’s coast last summer that killed four Israeli seamen.

The joint hearing last Thursday of two U.S. House of Representatives subcommittees — Europe, chaired by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), and Terrorism and Nonproliferation, chaired by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif. ) — was called because of Democratic skepticism about Bush administration plans to expand missile defense in Europe.

The stake, Bush administration officials told Wexler and Sherman, who are both Jewish, was Israel’s defense.

Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, quoted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Referring to possible war between Israel and the Palestinians, this is what the Iranian president stated to our European friends,” Fried said. ” ‘We have advised the Europeans that the Americans are far away, but you are the neighbors of the nations in the region. We inform you that the nations are like an ocean that is welling up, and if a storm begins, the dimensions will not stay limited to Palestine and you may get hurt.’ “

Iran was using a classic Cold War strategy of threatening others with nuclear attack in order to isolate the true target, Fried said — in this case, Israel.

“The situation we want to avoid is one where Europe would be in a position of absolute vulnerability through an Iranian nuclear arsenal, even a small one, thereby decoupling trans-Atlantic security, and also giving Iran an ability to use its other forces — its support for terrorism in the Middle East, and perhaps at some point conventional forces — to threaten Israel,” Fried said.

Earlier in the week, the Armed Forces Committee in the Democratic-controlled Congress had cut funding for the missile defense plans, which would place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic.

Fried and an associate, John Rood, the assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, were making the administration’s case to the two influential subcommittees that the plans should be kept alive.

Wexler and Sherman worried that the plans, which are expected to cost $4 billion, were based on untested technology, would alienate U.S. allies in Europe and would create suspicion in Russia.

Russia would see the missile defense as aimed at its own capacities, however much the United States claimed that its aim was Iran, Sherman argued. That would inhibit Russian cooperation in efforts to track down and control “loose nukes,” he said, and would keep Russia from helping to contain Iran’s nuclear threat.

“I can think of no better way to assure that Russia will do very little and they’ve done a little but do very little to help us stop the Iranian program than to stick it to them by putting our missiles in what used to be their allies,” he said.

Sherman and Wexler also said the money could be better spent protecting American borders and ports from terrorist infiltration, especially since more than $100 billion invested so far in missile defense has produced little in the way of successful tests.

Rood countered that Israel’s Arrow anti-missile program, developed jointly with the United States, has produced results.

“We and the Israelis have taken a similar approach to the development of missile defenses,” Rood said. “I would urge you, in your review of the administration’s budget request, whether it be the Arrow program or ours, to show support for that approach, because we do face these real and growing threats.”

Wexler, who regularly visits Israel, bristled at the administration’s invocation of ! Israel a s a way to gain Democratic support for the program.

“While we appreciate the description of the threat presented by Iran, this proposal for a missile defense system in Europe — unless you tell me otherwise — would seem to add zero in terms of defense capability for Israel versus Iran,” Wexler said. “And it seems to me to be a somewhat deceptive argument to in any way bolster the cause for the European system by throwing in the threat to Israel.”

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the Terrorism and Nonproliferation Subcommittee’s ranking member, dropped what appeared to be a bombshell: Israel confirmed that an Iranian crew was behind the July 14 missile attack that crippled an Israeli ship and killed four of its crew.

The strike was a critical propaganda victory for the Hezbollah terrorist group that had launched the war just two days earlier. Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah was on TV gloating about the hit within minutes of the strike, even before Israel had determined exactly what had happened.

Royce raised the issue in an attempt to underscore the threat that Iran’s long-range missile capabilities pose to Israel.

“I’d like to focus on the Iranian threat for a moment,” he said. “And I’d like to focus on it because one of the consequences of being in Israel at that time was finding out that, in terms of firing those missiles, not only were many of the missiles Syrian well, all of the missiles were either Syrian or Iranian manufacture but some of the missiles were actually fired by Iranian crews. In particular we know that the missile that hit the Israeli ship off the coast of Israel was fired by an Iranian crew. And we also know that as positions were overrun, Iranian IDs were found on many of the combatants.”

Media reports at the time that Israel suspected an Iranian crew was behind the Silkworm attack because Israeli intelligence doubted that Hezbollah troops had the training to launch the Chinese-made missile. However, the Iranian I! Ds disco vered on crew members were not conclusive, Israeli officials said at the time, because Hezbollah troops trained in Iran would have possessed such identification.

Royce’s comments went beyond that assessment, suggesting solid proof of Iranian involvement.

At least three participants in the hearing — Rood, Royce and Wexler — had toured Israel’s North during and following the war. Rood cited his visit in explaining the need to create an effective missile defense.

“I have also visited Haifa recently and met with the mayor and others there,” Rood told Wexler, “and I think it is important to bear in mind the effect that those attacks had — with rockets and missiles — on the population there.

“Even now, many months after that conflict has occurred, he told me that there are children — other members of the society are still coping with the aftereffects of those attacks,” Rood said.

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