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U.S. Missile Sale To Amman Flies Over Objections

WASHINGTON — Despite reported Israeli objections, the United States appears determined to push ahead with a planned sale of advanced air-to-air missiles to Jordan, Israeli sources and pro-Israel activists say.

Instead of trying to block the sale, Israeli officials now plan to seek assurances from the Bush administration that the missile, known as Amraam, will not be sold to other neighboring Arab air forces and that those sold to Jordan will not be used against Israel, the sources said.

According to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Israel fears an attempt to torpedo the deal will strain Israel’s relations with the Bush administration and with the Hashemite Kingdom, at a time when Prime Minister Sharon is eager to avoid conflicts with both.

There is still some debate within the Israeli security establishment regarding the appropriate Israeli position on the deal. However, sources said, proponents of compromise seem likely to prevail. “This is a developing story,” one Israeli source said.

“We have no problem with Jordan,” said an Israeli source familiar with the issue. “We just don’t want this to become a precedent.” The presence of such missiles in Jordan will erode Israel’s military “qualitative edge,” which successive administrations have pledged to maintain. The missiles’ proliferation in countries that have cooler relations with Israel would cause deeper erosion, a pro-Israel activist in Washington said.

Israel reportedly learned months ago of Jordan’s request to buy an undisclosed number of Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (Amraam). At first, Israel did not object. But late last month, when Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was informed that the deal was in the works, he reportedly asked his aides to try to block it. Israeli officials sent messages of objection to the Pentagon, while pro-Israel activists in Washington were asked to rally opposition in Congress, sources said.

Jordanian officials told the Forward that Amman learned of Israel’s opposition from press reports. It reacted with rage. “Jordan feels it’s the master of its destiny and can decide how best to defend itself,” Jordan’s foreign minister Marwan Muasher told reporters in Amman last week. “There’s agreement with the U.S. government to forge this deal,” he said. He added that Jordan has not been “formally informed of any Israeli attempt to foil the weapons deal.”

Made by Raytheon, the Amraam is considered the most advanced missile of its kind in the world. The air forces of 18 nations, including the United States and Israel, have equipped their aircraft with the weapon. Its main advantage is its sophisticated homing system, which make it less dependent on the fire-control system of the launching aircraft. Its built-in radar and microcomputer allow it to follow a target without the pilot’s intervention. That makes it easier to use in conditions of inclement weather and low visibility. It also gives the pilot more freedom to maneuver after launch to evade enemy fire.

Administration spokesmen have refused to address the issue publicly since Israeli objections became known at the beginning of August. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli last week told reporters: “We certainly appreciate all that Jordan has done to contribute to regional stability, including its support for a stable, secure and democratic Iraq, as well as its efforts to foster peace between Palestinians and Israelis.” At the same time, he said, “We remain committed to Israel’s qualitative military edge and will do nothing to degrade it.”

Both Israeli and Jordanian sources told the Forward that the administration is determined to go ahead with the deal. Israel’s fall-back objective, Israeli sources said, is to reach a compromise with the administration to ensure that Jordanian Amraams will not be used against Israel and that the missiles will not be sold to other Middle Eastern countries. One Israeli source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel has indications that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have expressed interest in the missiles.

A Jordanian official, replying to a question by the Forward, emphasized that Jordan is not involved in any such compromise negotiations, and is attempting to advance the deal “bilaterally, with the U.S.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobbying organization, is not taking a public position on the sale. Several pro-Israel activists said that Aipac did not appear to be lobbying on this issue privately, either. One pro-Israel organization, the Zionist Organization of America, has called on its supporters to send letters to President Bush opposing the deal. The ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein, said his organization’s main concern is that Jordan’s regime could fall, and the advanced weapons might then be used against Israel by elements not committed to Jordan’s peace accord with Israel. Klein said that Israeli officials encouraged his organization to launch the letter writing campaign.

A spokesman for Israel’s embassy here, when asked if ZOA’s actions serve Israel’s agenda regarding the deal, said that “the ZOA is an independent organization, which acts according to its own considerations and does not receive directions from the Israeli government.” Klein said his group will carry on with the campaign regardless of Israel’s official position, because it believes the deal puts Israel at risk.

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