Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Sympathy for the Arrow at the breakfast table

A joint security forum between Israel and the U.S. builds on mutual strategic interests.

A delegation of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has just returned from Washington after a week-long series of meetings of the joint security forum of the U.S. Congress and the Knesset. One of the meetings on Iran's nuclear capabilities shocked some Congressmen, and a bill proposing sanctions against Tehran has been proposed.

The forum, revived last year by MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) and Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, serves as an unofficial channel of communication between Israel and the United States. Originally founded by Minister Uzi Landau when he served on the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense committee (1996-1999), the forum allows an exchange of ideas on strategic issues in which Israel and the U.S. have a common interest.

"We managed to assist in the salvaging of the Arrow project," Steinitz says proudly. "Last year, Congress agreed to allocate $75-80 million for accelerated production of the Arrow missile, but as we were about to leave for the first joint meeting, in September 2003, the decision was revoked. Congress didn't approve the bill because of the huge costs of the war in Iraq. We asked our friends in the forum to call a meeting with the House Armed Services Committee, which was in charge of these issues. At the breakfast table we were told why Congress could not allocate any funds for the Arrow, but within an hour their team asked to consult among themselves [and] then came back promising to reconsider the issues. Two weeks later we were informed that Congress decided to allocate $88 million for the Arrow project."

Israeli representatives in the joint forum also succeeded in persuading Congress to allocate tens of millions of dollars this year for further development of the Nautilus project - the interception of missiles, rockets, and Qassams with laser technology. Trials have proven the effectiveness of the joint American-Israeli project, currently under development. "The defense establishment attaches great importance to pushing the project forward, because of its potential for revolutionizing tomorrow's battlefield," says Steinitz.

The MKs invested huge efforts in educating their counterparts in Congress about the potential threat of Iran's nuclear capabilities. During their first visit in Washington, and at the forum's initiative, the Senate held a special hearing on the subject with senior government representatives. Steinitz reveals that U.S. government experts predicted at the hearings that as soon Iran overcomes the technological challenges involved in building a nuclear bomb, it would be able to produce as many as 20 nuclear warheads every year. According to this scenario, Iran would likely become a world nuclear superpower.

The members of Congress were so shocked by the forecasts, forum members reported, that Senators Jon Kyl and Dianne Feinstein (Dem.-CA) responded by drafting a resolution calling on Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program. The resolution was approved by the House and the Senate and is awaiting President George W. Bush's signature.

The resolution won't solve the problem of the Iranian threat, Steinitz says, but it has a declarative value, by stating that not only Israel's security is at stake, but also American interests. The resolution proposes sanctions against Iran and declares that "the United States will reconsider its military and economic cooperation with countries that assist Iran in developing its nuclear program."

In their discussions with their American colleagues, the MKs broached Israel's concerns about the sale of various weapon systems to Arab countries, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia. At issue are anti-missile systems, sophisticated fighter pilot electronic control systems, and missile-bearing ships and tanks. Members of Congress promised the MKs that they would oppose the sales.

The MKs' pitch against the sale of 50 advanced sea-to-sea missiles to Egypt was also partially successful. These missiles have a range of 150 km, and there is concern they could threaten Israel. U.S. government officials promised that the missiles would be blocked by technological means from hitting Israeli land targets and only be allowed to fire on targets at sea.