The Pentagon has recommended one of the largest U.S. arms transfers in history to Saudi Arabia, totaling between $18 billion and $23 billion in planes, tanks and artillery over several years, to meet the long-term security needs of the kingdom against a continuing Iraqi military threat, administration officials said yesterday.
At the same time, Israel was mounting a new push in Washington for billions of dollars in debt forgiveness and new military assistance to counter the arms buildup in the Arab world and the unpredictable threat from Baghdad.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens was set to meet Monday with Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney to express concerns about the Arab arms buildup and to present new Israeli requests for pre-positioned U.S. ammunition in Israel and "real-time" links with U.S. spy satellites that would enable Israel to target Iraqi military sites and chemical weapons facilities on short notice.
This latter request, the most sensitive on the Israeli agenda, followed discussions last month in Washington with Arens's deputy David Ivry, about Israel's desire to increase "strategic coordination" with U.S. forces in the event hostilities break out in the Middle East, the officials said.
A high-level meeting at the State Department yesterday chaired by Undersecretary Robert M. Kimmit, formulated a U.S. response to the Israeli request that will be presented by Cheney, officials said. One administration official said the United States would agree to pre-position more ammunition in Israel, but deferred consideration of Israel's request to forgive its $4.5 billion military debt until after this Persian Gulf crisis abates.
A request to provide Israel with the Patriot air defense system free also would be deferred with an explanation that, by law, the administration could not grant such a request without approval from Congress, the official said.
On intelligence sharing and strategic coordination, the administration was expected to tell Arens that the United States would share intelligence with Israel as it shared intelligence with other allies, but would not provide a "real-time" link for Israel's military commanders. Such a link would allow Israel to receive electronic imaging data when it is beamed from orbiting satellites to U.S. ground stations for interpretation.
Cheney was expected to avoid the question of "strategic coordination" with Israel by reiterating the U.S. security commitment to Israel while stressing the need for Israel to keep a low profile in this crisis. The United States fears that a high Israeli profile could threaten the narrow Arab majority backing the multinational military efforts to force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to roll back his invasion of Kuwait.
The Pentagon recommendation for Saudi Arabia is an expansion of an arms package that was first reported last month as a $6 billion to $8 billion deal and based on a detailed evaluation by U.S. military officials of Saudi Arabia's long-term defense needs.
The package has been forwarded to the White House and State Department, but no decision is expected until Secretary of State James A. Baker III returns this weekend from his tour of foreign capitals.
The Saudi package includes at least 24 additional F-15 fighters, which would give the Saudi air force 110 top-of-the-line U.S. warplanes; hundreds of air-to-air missiles; 48 Apache helicopters; hundreds of M-1 main battle tanks; Bradley armored fighting vehicles; Stinger antiaircraft missiles; Patriot air defense systems; naval command and control systems; tank recovery vehicles, and thousands of tons of ammunition and other military supplies.
The first report of the expanded Saudi arms package was aired Thursday evening on Cable News Network following an earlier Washington Post report on the $6 billion to $8 billion arms package. The CNN report said the expanded sale could reach $25 billion, but administration officials said, depending on some weapons systems that may or may not be included, the total value of the package would range from $18 billion to $23 billion.
One of the weapons systems that has not received final approval for the package is a high-technology Multiple-Launch Rocket System that would give the Saudis a powerful battlefield strike weapon to stop advancing columns of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles.
The U.S. debate over balancing military assistance among Washington's allies in the Arab world who now are confronting Iraq against the traditional U.S. strategic alliance with Israel has fostered sharp discussions at interagency meetings among the Pentagon, State Department, Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Council.
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has undertaken a personal lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill to help reassure pro-Israel members of Congress that Saudi Arabia is arming only to defend itself.
Bandar met Thursday with 30 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and next week he will have private sessions with the House and Senate Armed Services committees and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Bush, meanwhile, asked Congress yesterday to authorize $1.9 billion to pay for the first two months of the military buildup in the gulf and formally sent legislation to forgive Egypt's $7 billion military debt.
Bush said last week that he had decided to erase the debt because of Egypt's key role in organizing the Arab opposition to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Bush's fiscal request to Congress would increase 1990 spending to cover the costs of the gulf action and, in separate legislation, to provide what the White House described as the "legal mechanisms" to allow the United States to accept donations from other countries that are contributing to the cost of the military buildup or offsetting some of the economic setbacks in Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, because of the trade embargo with Iraq.
Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.