WASHINGTON -- The Navy is exploring the possibility of basing an aircraft carrier, minesweepers or other ships of the 6th Fleet in the Israeli port of Haifa, a major shift in deployment strategy that could have serious repercussions at home and in the Middle East.
Navy officials say privately they are not eager to initiate such a move. But they say pressure from Senate committees and pro-Israel interests in Washington help to explain why they are considering Haifa as a possible home port for U.S. ships.
Only yesterday, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, told Israeli officials on a visit to Tel Aviv that he will obtain money to make Haifa's port a permanent home for part of the fleet.
The 6th Fleet, headquartered in Gaeta, Italy, where the command ship USS Belknap has its home port, now draws virtually all its naval assets from carrier battle groups based in Norfolk, Va., and Mayport, Fla. As many as five aircraft carriers are needed to keep one stationed in the Mediterranean on a near-continuous basis, a congressional analysis shows.
The Navy's only other overseas home ports are in Sicily, where the submarine tender USS Orion is based, and in Japan, where the USS Independence carrier battle group has been based in Yokosuka and a group of amphibious ships in Sasebo since 1973.
Although no decisions are imminent, those favoring the creation of a foreign home port argue that the Navy must find new ways to project U.S. power overseas with fewer ships, aircraft and sailors. A permanent move to Haifa would represent a commitment to Israeli security and bolster U.S. defense of the Suez Canal and Arabian peninsula, they say.
But even advocates acknowledge that such a move could mobilize strong opposition, especially in U.S. communities distressed by military base closings and defense layoffs.
Moreover, the Arab reaction is difficult to anticipate. If the proposal materializes at a difficult time in the Mideast peace talks, "it could be viewed as evidence of bias," said a senior Arab diplomat here.
"This matter will not be exploited [by Arabs for political gain] unless there's a need to exploit it," he added.
Another Arab diplomat said there was a tacit acceptance, even among Mideast powers not friendly to the United States, of U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation.
A former senior naval officer, retired Vice Adm. William Rowden, who commanded the 6th Fleet from 1981 to 1983 and who is working on a Haifa feasibility study for the Navy, said: "If you want to reduce the number of carriers, you can do it by home-porting in Haifa. There's no question you can stretch your capability for forward presence."
"But I don't hear a real good discussion of how the political issues will be settled to make it OK. People say, 'Leave that to the State Department to work out,' " he said. "I get nervous about that."
Incentive vs. reward
There have been suggestions that influential members of the Clinton administration are receptive to the idea of home-porting ships in Haifa, both as a budget-cutting device and as a foreign policy tool, although administration officials are in no hurry to act as long as the Middle East peace talks remain stalled and the Navy feasibility study is incomplete.
Some officials believe the Haifa proposal would give Israel an added security guarantee against concessions Jerusalem might
make in the peace negotiations. But there are conflicting views over whether a home port proposal should be used as an incentive to propel the peace process forward or as a reward for an Arab-Israeli settlement.
Dore Gold, an Israeli military analyst with close defense ties in Tel Aviv and Washington, said he expects that Israeli officials would welcome the home-porting plan if it is not tied to unacceptable concessions in the peace process.
"The question is whether this is integrated into the peace process," Mr. Gold said in Jerusalem. Creating a permanent base could "give Israel a sense of some kind of strategic umbrella under which Israel can take greater risks in the peace process," he said. But if that risk involves returning the Golan Heights to Syria, there would be controversy, he predicted.
A potential obstacle is who will pay for the cost of building base facilities, he said.
Taking the initiative
Israeli officials in Washington said their government has not conveyed any official interest in creating a home port in Haifa, adding that they were unaware of any "concrete proposal" circulating within the U.S. government. "It's true you have all kinds of private ideas being aired, but I am totally unaware that the notion of a permanent presence is being considered," one official said.
So far, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel groups have been waging a low-key informational campaign to stimulate interest within the Clinton administration and Congress so that Washington will be seen as taking the initiative.