Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens told Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney yesterday that his government wants additional U.S. military aid of its own to compensate for the sale to Saudi Arabia of more than $20 billion in advanced U.S. weapons.
Administration officials said Cheney promised that Israel's "qualitative military edge" in the Middle East will be maintained despite the Saudi deal, a $23 billion package of advanced warplanes, tanks and artillery that would be one of the largest U.S. arms transfers in history.
Announcement of the impending sale has increased anxiety in Israel that U.S. preoccupation with the Persian Gulf crisis might erode Israel's position as the principal American ally in the Middle East and tilt Washington's priorities toward the Arab states. Arens, while on a private visit here, met with Cheney with the aim of making clear Israel's view that sales of the Saudi deal's magnitude to other Arab countries would endanger the Jewish state unless they are offset by substantial military aid increases to Israel.
"I think a very large-scale sale of advanced equipment to the Saudis without adequate compensation for Israel could upset the military balance in the area, and that would be destabilizing," Arens said in a brief exchange with reporters following the meeting at the Pentagon.
Israeli sources said the phrase "adequate compensation" was intended as a signal that Israel, already the largest recipient of U.S. aid, wants a boost in the $1.8 billion a year it now receives as military assistance and greater access to some of the more sophisticated weapons systems in the U.S. arsenal.
The sources said Arens outlined to Cheney some of the equipment Israel wants to acquire. But they stressed that yesterday's talks were concerned less with shopping lists than with discussions of ways to get around the barriers to increased aid posed by Israel's limited financial resources and the Bush administration's emphasis on budgetary restraint.
"These meetings generally are not intended to provide assurances," Arens said. "They are the beginning of a discussion that eventually leads to agreement, and I hope we will have agreement."
A Pentagon statement said Cheney and Arens "discussed in general terms Israel's security needs." But it added: "The secretary reiterated the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge."
Recent reports from Israel have said Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government wants three things from the administration: increased military aid that would boost Israel's military and economic aid substantially above its present level of $3 billion a year; forgiveness of the $4.5 billion military aid debt that Israel owes to the United States; and greater cooperation with the U.S. military buildup against Iraq, including pre-positioning of U.S. ammunition in Israel and increased intelligence sharing that would enhance Israel's ability to target Iraqi military sites.
Israeli officials accompanying Arens refused to discuss the last point. However, U.S. officials have made known that while they might agree to some pre-positioning, they are strongly opposed to giving Israel such increased intelligence sharing as a "real time" link allowing the Israelis to receive U.S. satellite data at the same time it is beamed to U.S. ground stations.
Ever since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, the United States has urged Israel to keep a low profile in order not to endanger the fragile coalition of Arab states that the administration patched together to confront Iraq. Cheney's statement yesterday "expressed appreciation for Israel's low-profile posture," and U.S. officials said they do not want to change the equation by giving the Israelis a greater entry into the struggle against Iraq.
Israel's desire for debt relief was prompted by President Bush's proposal to forgive Egypt's $7 billion military debt as a sign of appreciation for Egyptian assistance against Iraq. However, the Israeli sources said that Arens did not discuss the matter in any detail yesterday on the grounds that his concern is with new military aid and that questions of financial relief are the province of Israeli Finance Minister Itzhak Modai.
Among the new weaponry that Israel wants to acquire is the costly Patriot air defense missile system. However, Israel wants to get the system for free. U.S. officials have replied that such a request must be approved by Congress and thus cannot be granted at this time.