Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir wrapped up a three-day visit here today amid indications that Argentina would seek large new military purchases from Israel in an extensive rearming effort following the Falkland Islands conflict.
Shamir, who met with Foreign Minister Juan Aguirre Lanari and the president, Gen. Reynaldo Bignone, said at a press conference that his talks with government officials had covered Israel's recent war in Lebanon, Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands, and the question of some 30 Israeli citizens who have been missing since the Argentine military's violent campaign against internal opponents in the late 1970s.
Shamir avoided comment on the arms trade between Israel and Argentina, which before the Falkland Islands conflict supplied Argentina with some 35 Dagger warplanes, an Israeli-built version of the French Mirage III, as well as other equipment.
Government and diplomatic sources said, however, that Argentina's military government perceived Israel as a key part of what has become a large and expensive arms-buying campaign since the loss of the Falklands conflict with Britain last June.
The military has already committed itself to more than $1 billion in arms purchases this year by going ahead with existing contracts and negotiating new buys, the sources said. This is despite the government's difficulties in meeting payments on the foreign debt estimated at almost $40 billion.
The most notable recent delivery has been of nine new French Super Entendard fighter-bombers, each with a complement of the Exocet missiles that proved effective against British warships during the conflict. Argentina has also received spare parts and other equipment from France, and has bought 10 Mirage III fighters from Peru and 12 Xavante tactical and support planes from Brazil, according to official reports and diplomatic and military sources. The Air Force lost more than 50 planes in the three-month conflict.
The armed forces are also expecting delivery of four modern frigates from West Germany beginning in March and hope to complete a contract for 27 Kurassier light tanks from Austria, according to official reports.
Diplomatic sources added that Argentina has purchased three commercial versions of the Hercules C130 military transport plane from the Lockheed Corp. in the United States, and is expected to buy spare parts for its other transport planes from Lockheed. The planes are meant for military use, but do not fall under the ongoing U.S. arms embargo against Argentina, the sources said.
Former president Leopoldo Galtieri told a recent interviewer that Argentina arranged to buy 22 more Dagger planes from Israel during the Falklands conflict, according to a transcript of the unpublished conversation made available here. But diplomatic sources, while confirming the report, said it was not clear whether Argentina's Air Force had received the planes.
Argentine spokesmen have refused to discuss the arms purchases and have denied most reports of new deals, even when they were announced by the sellers. But diplomatic and government sources here suggested that Argentina expected Israel to be a principal supplier of new materiel for its Air Force, including planes, radar and spare parts.
The arms-buying campaign continues a pattern of heavy investment by the military government that has made Argentina one of the largest military spenders in Latin America. A recent independent study reported here showed Argentina spending $65 per capita this year on arms, well above the figure recorded by a World Bank study in 1979 after correction for inflation. Official figures show the armed forces spent $1.1 billion in budgeted funds during the first eight months of this year.
Although there appears to be little prospect that military leaders will soon turn their newly acquired weapons on British forces stationed on the Falklands, the armed forces are reported to remain concerned about the potential of a conflict with Chile over the ownership of three small islands near South America's southern tip.
The military is also believed to be anxious to rearm before completing the promised transition to civilian government by March 1984, when arms purchases are likely to be questioned by political leaders.
Diplomatic sources estimate that Argentina has already managed to rebuild its force of Mirages--one of the main components of its Air Force--to about 60 operating planes. They add, however, that Argentina has still not resolved the problem of how to increase the range of the French and Israeli-made fighters so that they can reach the Falklands from the Argentine coast and safely return.