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Israel’s U.S. Friends Worry About New Saudi Firepower : Military: Newest high-tech American arms to the kingdom could tilt regional power balance, they warn.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israel’s influential allies in America, while supporting President Bush’s proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia so far, are becoming increasingly concerned that the Mideast crisis may be used to justify the transfer of highly sophisticated weapons to the Saudis that could one day jeopardize Israel.

The pro-Israel lobby and its congressional allies, who have often been able to stop arms sales to Arab nations, fear that a protracted conflict with Iraq could provide political momentum for arming the Saudis with enough firepower to tilt the military balance in the volatile region.

“My overriding concern is that this crisis not be used as a fig leaf for a wholesale transfer of destabilizing, state-of-the-art weapons that raise an array of concerns that will be just as valid after the crisis as they were before the crisis,” said Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), one of Israel’s leading Capitol Hill allies. He added:

“If we have learned anything from this crisis, it should be that a policy of unrestrained arms sales doesn’t accomplish what it’s supposed to and doesn’t enable the recipients to defend themselves without direct American military support.”

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Nonetheless, Levine expressed support for the latest Bush Administration proposal, officially announced Wednesday, to sell the Saudis $2.2 billion in arms, including 24 F-15 fighter planes, 150 M-60 tanks, 50 Stinger missile launchers and 200 Stinger missiles.

The President notified key members of Congress earlier this week that he intends to ship the weapons on an emergency basis under a law that permits him to waive the congressional-approval process. Congress would normally have 30 days to review such a sale.

Levine’s reluctant support for emergency arms shipments and deep-seated concern about future transfers reflect the delicate position in which Israel’s American supporters find themselves. They are anxious not to appear to put the interests of the Jewish state above those of the United States, which now has more than 50,000 troops deployed in the region. But they also want to curb the potential for an increased long-term threat to Israel’s security from a better armed Arab world.

In the wake of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Israel has kept a low profile to avoid inflaming anti-Israel sentiment in the region. Most of Iraq’s major Arab neighbors have joined in condemning Hussein’s aggression.

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The latest U.S. weapons sale, as well as $4 billion worth of arms that the Administration had earlier designated for delivery to the Saudis, does not pose a direct threat to Israel, pro-Israel sources said. They added that Bush should be given considerable latitude to make transfers that he deems necessary to protect the lives of American troops stationed in the Persian Gulf region.

The Saudis already have 60 F-15s and previously agreed to buy another 12 from the McDonnell Douglas Corp.

Of primary concern to the pro-Israel lawmakers and lobbyists is a sale proposal that the Administration has indicated will be forthcoming.

That package may include F-15Es, a far more advanced ground-attack version of the warplane than has previously been sent to any Mideast country, including Israel. The arms sales to date have included only F-15Cs and F-15Ds.

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Opponents of such a transfer argue that because the lag time for delivery of an F-15E is generally two years, including it in an arms package would not be justified by the current situation.

“Every sale needs to be looked at on the merits of the sale itself: on the impact it has on the military balance, on the Saudis’ needs and on the need to protect American interests and American citizens,” said a representative of a prominent pro-Israel organization.

The major concern among Israel’s allies is that, after the current showdown is over, the high-technology weapons could fall into hostile hands if Saudi Arabia is invaded or its ruling family overthrown. The weapons also could be turned against Israel in an Arab-Israeli conflict.

Lawmakers and congressional sources pointed to the ouster of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, once America’s staunch ally, by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 and to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as examples of the lack of control over weapons sent to the unstable region. They noted that Kuwait was scheduled to receive 40 F-18 fighter planes from the United States in 1991--equipment that now would be in Iraqi hands if it had already been delivered.

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“While we are concerned about doing everything possible to deal with the aggression of Saddam Hussein, one must look at the long-term, as well as the short-term, implications of arms supplies that will remain after this is over,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which represents 46 groups.

Hoenlein said leaders of 10 American Jewish organizations expressed that concern to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney when they met with him in Washington last Friday. Cheney assured them that any arms sales to the Saudis would not threaten Israel’s current military advantage.

Nevertheless, if future high-technology arms shipments to the Saudis are essential, Rep. Levine said, “I would be a lot more comfortable if we either kept these weapons in our own hands or we developed a crisis-oriented policy that temporarily put them in Saudi hands at this time but gave us the ability to recall them when the crisis ended.”


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