Israeli activists are trying to figure out how to block the United States from selling a new, sophisticated type of missile to Egypt that could reach Israeli targets with increased accuracy.
The Bush administration has told Congress of its plans to sell Egypt 53 Harpoon Block II missiles and four patrol boats from which to fire them.
Administration officials have told American Jewish leaders and Israeli officials that Egypt needs the weapons to protect the Suez Canal from an attack like the one that occurred last year on the USS Cole in Yemen.
But Israeli officials and Israel advocates say that if Egypt receives the Harpoon Block II — which manufacturer Boeing Co. calls the “world’s most successful anti-ship missile” — Israel could lose its qualitative military edge.
“This is an especially capable system that has the ability for offensive strikes, and the Israelis don’t have an effective defense against it,” said a military analyst for one American Jewish organization. “There are probably other ways to defend the Suez Canal that don’t include providing a missile that has a second capability that is destabilizing to the region.”
However, a State Department official said the sale would not upset the strategic balance in the region.
“We would never sell weapons to another country that would aversely effect or undermine Israel’s security,” the official said.
Officials at the Egyptian embassy in Washington were unavailable for comment.
Since making peace with Israel in 1979, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of American aid. Much of that money has gone into a massive buildup, with advanced American weapons, of the Egyptian military — though Egypt no longer faces any real military threat.
Israel is concerned about the military build-up, as well as a recent harshness in Egyptian policy toward Israel.
In the current political climate, however, few want to question the Bush administration’s right to send military aid to allied countries, especially if the weapons could be used to defend U.S. interests overseas from terrorist attacks.
“Israel has serious concerns about the proposed sale, but because of the geopolitical situation since Sept. 11 and the understanding of America’s needs, and because of our desire not to be seen as causing instability in regards to more moderate Arab regimes, we decided not to initiate any sort of campaign or battle over this issue,” an Israeli official in Washington said.
The official would not comment on whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will raise the issue when he meets with President Bush next week.
American Jewish leaders knew of plans to sell the Harpoon to Egypt, but were told by Bush administration officials that the plan was on hold. Nonetheless, community leaders say they will defer to Congress, hoping Congress can block the sale.
“We hope that Egypt’s legitimate military needs can be met without selling them this kind of an advanced missile,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“A stable and prosperous Egypt is in our interest, while an arms race between Israel and Egypt is not,” Lantos told The Washington Post. “The State Department is sort of following a pattern of escalating the level of arms sales to Egypt, which in turn will mean escalating the number of arms sales and the sophistication to Israel.”
It’s unclear how much political capital pro-Israel lawmakers will expend to block the sale.
“Clearly, there is a reluctance to publicly oppose the administration in an area of national security unless it is a special case,” said an aide to a Democratic pro-Israel lawmaker. “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that this case rises to this level.”
The American Jewish community has been concerned about Egypt’s actions of late, including anti-Israel and anti-American vitriol in the official Egyptian media, which has become more shrill since the Sept. 11 attacks. That makes the timing of the sale even more contentious.
In addition, Egypt often has played an obstructionist role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and was instrumental in killing a compromise resolution at September’s U.N. World Conference Against Racism that would have forestalled an American and Israeli walkout. Also, Egyptian support for America’s war in Afghanistan is considered lukewarm.
“The size and quality of their arms imports relative to the potential threat, the removal of their ambassador to Israel last October, their record on human rights, and the constant stream of anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric in the government-sanctioned media have caused both journalists and members of Congress to raise some serious concerns about Egypt,” said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Some congressional aides describe the issue as a “tempest in a tea cup,” but predict it will be used by lawmakers and activists who consistently question military aid to Egypt to bring the issue to the forefront.
Experts say that if the missile sale goes through, Israel could be given technology to defend itself, or the missiles could be manipulated so they can’t target ally ships or have land capabilities.
A State Department official said the sale is part of an American request for Egypt to enhance security of U.S. military vessels and personnel passing through the Suez Canal. That follows last year’s attack on the Cole, when terrorists pulled alongside the ship in Yemen and detonated explosives, killing 17 crew members.
Egypt in turn requested more accurate missiles, and experts believe the Harpoon would be effective against a similar attack.
What remains unclear is the relation between the proposed sale and reports that North Korea plans to provide Egypt with medium-range missiles. Congress is investigating those reports, and State Department officials refused to comment.
The proposed U.S. arms sales are now in a 20-day comment period for Congress, and congressional sources say it is too soon to tell whether a formal notice to Congress of the sale will spark action. A simple majority is enough for lawmakers to pass a resolution against the sale within 30 days of its announcement.
If Bush were to veto such a resolution, a two-thirds majority would be needed to override the veto, something that has never happened before.
Congressional aides say they can have more luck through back channels.
“The administration is going to need Congress over the next several months and years to win the war on terrorism,” the Democratic aide said. “The real question is how important is this sale to the administration and how willing are they to push the envelope on this.”