Mideast Now More Dangerous--Arens

TIMES STAFF WRITER

New world order? The world after the Persian Gulf War is a more dangerous place than ever for Israel, asserts Moshe Arens, the Israeli defense minister.

Sure, Iraq has been battered, but what about Syria? Saudi Arabia is far away, but it's buying plenty of tanks. In fact, he says, "Middle Eastern dictators" everywhere are arming themselves. How will Israel stay ahead?

One answer for Arens is more money from the United States--he wants Washington to boost Israel's military aid by almost 40%, from $1.8 billion a year to $2.5 billion.

If that sounds like a recipe for a perpetual arms race, well, from Arens' point of view, this is an existential contest for Israel. The defense minister also argues that continued Israeli expansion of settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip is no reason to withhold new military aid.

Here are excerpts from an interview last week with The Times:

Question: You have asked for a big increase in American aid--$700 million for a total of $2.5 billion. How do you justify such an amount?

Answer: The present level of aid, $1.8 billion, which is a lot of money and is greatly appreciated, has been at that level for a good number of years. So there's been an erosion just in terms of inflation. Secondly, the great arms race that has been going on in the Middle East, the sale of weaponry to Arab armies, including sale of American arms, has put an increased burden on Israel. We have to take appropriate measures when we see weaponry being sold to Arab armies.

There must be contingency planning on our part and, even if an Arab country that seemed reasonably on the defensive is sold large quantities of weapons, then it's something that . . . forces an allocation of resources. I think it is justifiable . . . the additional allocation that will allow us to deal with that situation.

Q: Can you give a specific example of something sold to an Arab country that Israel needs to counter?

A: The sale of M-1 tanks to Saudi Arabia. Anyone who puts themselves in my position should not expect that tomorrow those tanks will cross into Israel--but one has to take into consideration that under certain circumstances, these tanks would be used against Israel. No friend of Israel would advise Israel to sit back and be indifferent to that change in the military balance in the area.

Q: With Iraq weakened, shouldn't Israel be in a better position?

A: No doubt about it, Iraq has been weakened, and that's a very important step. But we look in parallel: Iraq has been weakened and the Syrian army has been strengthened. Syria happens to be even closer to Israel than Iraq.

The Syrians have come out of this war greatly strengthened in terms of financial resources at their disposal from many countries in the world, including Saudi Arabia. And Syria is in the process of massively buying new weapons. Scud missiles from North Korea is just one example.

Q: All of these things appear to foreshadow an arms spiral. . . .

A: It is very difficult. We're spending an enormous percentage of our gross domestic product on defense and we're in a position where we feel if we don't do it, we prejudice our very existence. And I think there are not many countries in the world today that are in that position.

You look at the defense expenditures of the Arab armies, more than seven or eight times Israel's expenditures. Not only do we have a great imbalance here, but an increasing imbalance.

Q: Israel did not warmly greet President Bush's proposal for arms control, which focused on weapons of mass destruction as well as conventional supplies.

A: We are definitely for taking steps to reduce the arms race in the area. In terms of the peace process, I personally think that this is the most important step to take.

We have just seen how dangerous it is when a Middle East dictator gets his hands on a very large military machine. It took the United States and its allies--and a deployment oftroops that took five months to put into place--to deal with hat danger. So we in Israel ask ourselves, what would have happened if Saddam Hussein had gone for Israel and not for Kuwait? He's not the only dictator in the area that has a large army. Today, I suppose the Syrians have the fourth-largest army in the world.

I would say the most important step that should be taken is that weapons are not sold to dictators in this area. If you can't bring about a cessation, something I have suggested, you ought to bring about a reduction. A suggestion I put forward is that we have a conference of suppliers and buyers.

Q: There appears to be a contradiction between proposed cuts in Israel's military programs and the request for more money.

A: This is not contradictory at all. It is consistent and an indication of the very difficult economic situatioN that the (Israeli Defense Forces) finds itself in, within the framework of budgets as presently allocated . . . .

We are not cutting the defense budget. We are rearranging and streamlining things in order to get the most defense for the buck.

Q: It seems that future investment will center more on defense than offense.

A: Israel has never placed an embargo on defensive weapons. I think the important lesson of the Gulf War is that Arab dictators have amassed large quantities of ballistic missiles, and they may be living under the illusion that they can simply attack civilian targets in Israel with impunity. We must find ways to deal with that situation. We can't allow them to get away with that. We have to take appropriate measures, including defensive measures like the Arrow (missile), but not limited to defensive measures.

Q: Was Israel's deterrent shield damaged by the war?

A: There are clear indications that a man like Saddam Hussein was not deterred by Israel's capability from using Scuds against Israeli cities. I assume he was deterred from using chemical warheads. Clearly he was concerned about the response he might get from Israel, and rightly so.

Q: Israel has said it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Is the Arrow a means to avoid using them by better protecting Israeli cities and making a nuclear response less likely?

A: I think that the Arrow, when deployed, is going to bring about a tremendous improvement in the situation in the world in the sense that all the dictators who have amassed hundreds and thousands of Scud-type missiles have a bunch of junk on their hands.

Q: Does the added cost of absorbing tens of thousands of new Soviet immigrants play into the request for more aid?

A: Obviously, the economic burden connected with absorbing Soviet immigrants makes it more difficult than in the past. Things are certainly not getting any easier when we have this additional great challenge of absorbing Soviet immigrants.

Q: How can Israel claim to need more money when it is willing to spend on settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, something that the Bush Administration considers a block to peace?

A: I think that is just a red herring. Those are two incommensurate issues. There is really no correlation between them. Building a house in the territories is not any more expensive than building a house in Tel Aviv, probably cheaper. And if the house has got to be built, the money to build it has got to come from somewhere. It doesn't make any sense in the context of the defense budget. I don't see any connection unless somebody wants to use this as a stick to beat Israel with.

I don't believe any administration would want to do that. Making sure that Israel has a defense posture that can ensure deterrence or, if deterrence fails, can defend itself, I think, is not only in the Israeli interest but in America's interest.

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