Israel Drawn Into Debate on Missile Defense

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 13, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Washington — Israel is being drawn by the United States into Washington’s dispute with Russia over the deployment of missile-defense systems in Europe.

In attempts to make the case for placing missile interceptors and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, American officials have argued that the initiative would improve Israel’s security and help protect the Jewish state from a possible Iranian missile attack. Yet, Israeli defense officials are steering clear of the debate and are stating that Israel has no stand on the issue of using European countries as a front base for American anti-missile systems.

Congressional sources argued that Israel is being dragged into the debate in order to sway Jewish lawmakers to support Bush’s plan.

The possible connection between Israel’s security and the need to build American missile interceptor bases in Eastern Europe was raised early last month at a joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Foreign Relations Affairs Committee. The subcommittees — on terrorism and nonproliferation, and on Europe — are chaired, respectively, by Jewish Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida and Rep. Brad Sherman of California.

At the hearing, Dan Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, and John Rood, who is in charge of nonproliferation issues at the State Department, stressed the benefits that the European-based missile system would have for Israel.

“The situation we want to avoid,” Fried said at the hearing, “is one where Europe would be in a position of absolute vulnerability through an Iranian nuclear arsenal, even a small one, thereby decoupling trans-Atlantic security and also giving Iran an ability to use its other forces — its support for terrorism in the Middle East, and, perhaps at some point, conventional forces, to threaten Israel.” He went on to insist that Iran is now threatening Europe with nuclear weapons in order to isolate Israel, and that an anti-missile system in Europe could counter such threats.

Wexler and Sherman remained opposed to the administration’s plea to support the European missile plan. “This proposal,” Wexler said, “would seem to add zero in terms of defense capability for Israel versus Iran.”

Israeli officials, though cautious in their response, agree.

An Israeli defense source said that Israel does not consider the possible deployment of interceptors in Europe to be a significant part of its missile-defense strategy, which is based on both deterrence and a two-tiered missile-defense system that consists of the PAC-3 and Arrow systems.

When asked last week about the issue, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh responded, “I am not sure I understand the linkage between Israel and placing anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.”

This is not the first time Israel’s security has been inserted into the political debate over missile defense. Last month, during a congressional standoff over funding missile-defense operations, Republicans — trying to prevent Democrats from cutting the project’s budget — introduced a last-minute amendment adding $205 million for joint Israeli-American anti-missile programs. House Democrats accused the Republicans of playing politics with Israel’s security, but voted for the amendment. Most of the sum is dedicated to buying the American-made THAAD anti-missile system radar and would go back to American manufacturers.

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