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Israel Protests U.S. Sale of Warplanes to Saudi Arabia

By Michael Parks
Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM

The Israeli government Sunday protested the Bush administration's plans to sell 72 high-performance F-15XP warplanes to Saudi Arabia and said that it would insist that the United States honor its long-standing commitment to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge in the Middle East.

Reminding the United States that Saudi Arabia remains formally at war with Israel, the Israeli Cabinet said it would make an issue of the sale, raising the possibility of some sharp questions for President Bush during the presidential campaign.

But the real thrust of the Israeli Cabinet's five-point statement Sunday was what would Israel now get from the United States to ensure that it retained a decisive, hi-tech advantage in the Middle East's strategic balance.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, apparently anticipating the long-discussed F-15 sale, had discussed what the United States would do for Israel with Bush last month. According to the Cabinet statement, "a number of courses of action were agreed upon in order to preserve the qualitative edge of the Israel Defense Forces."

Even as Bush was announcing the sale of the F-15s to the cheers of the McDonnell-Douglas workers who build them in St. Louis, Israeli officials were meeting in Washington with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to discuss further U.S. assistance to Israel, according to Israeli officials.

The Israeli protest thus was regarded by most commentators here as token -- a warning to Washington that Jerusalem opposes arms sales to Arab states, that it could mobilize its supporters in the United States to fight them, but instead would accept "compensation."

With no irony apparent, however, the Israeli Cabinet warned that the sale of the F-15s would accelerate the arms race in the Middle East and then declared: "Israel insists that the United States act in accordance with its commitment to maintain the qualitative edge of the Israel Defense Forces."

Israel does not have the F-15XP among its more than 60 F-15 aircraft, but it does have 150 F-16s, and 60 more sophisticated F-16 models are due for delivery later this year.

Israel's supporters in the United States had advised it not to campaign against the F-15 sale, arguing that it was a political necessity for Bush because of the jobs it would save in the American defense industry where cutbacks are widespread. "An election bribe," the newspaper Maariv commented tartly.

The sale, moreover, would win the necessary congressional support, Israel was told by its American supporters, and a heavy campaign against it meant pointless confrontation with both Republicans and Democrats in the midst of the U.S. elections.

Israel was told it should instead quietly seek what is described here as a "package deal" in which it might minimize the military damage, such as preventing the sale of an even more advanced model of the F-15, and later receive "compensation" to assure its security.