U.S. rushing precision bombs to Israel

Expedited shipment was requested after start of airstrikes in Lebanon

July 22, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is rushing a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel, which requested the expedited shipment last week after beginning its air campaign against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, American officials said yesterday.

The decision to quickly ship the weapons to Israel was made with relatively little debate within the Bush administration, the officials said. Its disclosure threatens to anger Arab governments and others because of the appearance that the United States is actively aiding the Israeli bombing campaign in a way that could be compared to Iran's efforts to arm and resupply Hezbollah.

The munitions that the U.S. is sending to Israel are part of a multimillion-dollar arms sale package approved last year that Israel can draw on as needed, the officials said. But Israel's request for expedited delivery of the satellite- and laser-guided bombs was described as unusual by some military officers and as an indication that Israel had a long list of targets in Lebanon still to strike.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that she would head to Israel tomorrow at the beginning of a round of Middle Eastern diplomacy. The original plan was to include a stop in Cairo, Egypt, but she did not announce any stops in Arab capitals.

Instead, the meeting of Arab and European envoys planned for Cairo will take place in Italy, Western diplomats said. While Arab governments initially criticized Hezbollah for starting the fight with Israel in Lebanon, discontent is rising in Arab countries over the number of civilian casualties in Lebanon, and the governments have become wary of playing host to Rice until a cease-fire package is put together.

To hold the meetings in an Arab capital before a diplomatic solution is reached, said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, "would have identified the Arabs as the primary partner of the United States in this project at a time where Hezbollah is accusing the Arab leaders of providing cover for the continuation of Israel's military operation." The decision to stay away from Arab countries is a markedly different strategy from the shuttle diplomacy that previous administrations used to mediate in the Middle East. "I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante," Rice said yesterday. "I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling around, and it wouldn't have been clear what I was shuttling to do."

Before Rice heads to Israel tomorrow, she will join President Bush at the White House for discussions on the Middle East crisis with two Saudi envoys, Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the secretary general of the National Security Council.

The new American arms shipment to Israel has not been announced publicly, and the officials who described the administration's decision to rush the munitions to Israel would discuss it only after being promised anonymity. The officials included employees of two government agencies, and one described the shipment as just one example of a broad array of armaments that the United States has long provided to Israel.

One American official said the shipment should not be compared to the kind of an "emergency resupply" of dwindling Israeli stockpiles that was provided during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when an American military airlift helped Israel recover from early Arab victories.

David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said: "We have been using precision-guided munitions in order to neutralize the military capabilities of Hezbollah and to minimize harm to civilians. As a rule, however, we do not comment on Israel's defense acquisitions."

Israel's need for precision munitions is driven in part by its strategy in Lebanon, which includes destroying hardened underground bunkers where Hezbollah leaders are said to have taken refuge as well as missile sites and other targets that would be hard to hit without laser- and satellite-guided bombs.

Pentagon and military officials declined to describe in detail the size and contents of the shipment to Israel, and they would not say whether the munitions were being shipped by cargo aircraft or some other means. But an arms-sale package approved last year provides authority for Israel to purchase from the United States as many as 100 GBU-28s, which are 5,000-pound laser-guided bombs intended to destroy concrete bunkers. The package also provides for selling satellite-guided munitions.

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