Gates Tries to Ease Israeli Concerns

The Associated Press
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 7:37 AM

JERUSALEM -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday tried to ease Israeli concerns about a planned American weapons sale to Gulf Arab allies, saying the U.S. remains committed to preserving Israel's military edge over its neighbors.

Gates also said his 24-hour trip to Israel did not include any discussions on taking military action against Iran. He reiterated his belief that diplomacy is the best course of action for halting Iran's nuclear program.

Israeli officials have objected to U.S. plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and other moderate Gulf states, fearing it would damage Israel's deterrent capabilities in the Middle East. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Washington has delayed the arms sale package because of the Israeli objections.

Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv before his departure, Gates said he had urged Israeli leaders to look at the deal in terms of the "overall strategic environment" and stressed that Israel's neighbors have other alternatives for purchasing arms.

"I'm confident that the Russians would be very happy to sell weapons to countries in the region," he said. Gates said he affirmed the U.S. will continue to help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge, but did not say whether the Saudi deal would go through.

Israel is worried about the transfer of advanced weaponry to Arab countries, even to moderate countries like Saudi Arabia.

In particular, it objects to the planned sale of advanced air systems that would vastly upgrade the striking ability of Saudi warplanes, some of which could be stationed just several hundred miles from Israeli airspace. The U.S. has been selling Israel such weapons since the 1990s.

The New York Times said the deal is meant to counter Iranian influence in the region.

Iran was high on the agenda during Gates' 24-hour visit to Israel, the third stop on a swing through the Mideast. The topic was raised during his meetings Thursday with both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

The U.S. and Israel accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapons _ a charge Tehran denies.

The Israeli concerns have been heightened by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for Israel's destruction. Olmert has never ruled out taking military action, but he has repeatedly said he would prefer a diplomatic solution.

Livni said Iran is a threat not only to Israel, but to moderate Arab nations in the Middle East.

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