WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has expressed regret to Israel for permitting allegations of Israeli theft of cluster bomb technology to surface in the American press, an Administration official said Wednesday.
The message, which the U.S. official said stopped short of an apology, was delivered as Vice President George Bush prepared to leave for a Middle Eastern trip. During the tour, Bush plans to discuss with Israeli officials the cluster bomb charges and the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel.
"The United States expressed regret that there was an apparently unauthorized disclosure of information about an ongoing investigation," the U.S. official, who requested anonymity, said.
But, when told that the Israeli newspaper Hadashot, quoting unnamed Israeli officials, had reported that the U.S. State and Justice Departments had apologized for allowing the matter to be made public, the official replied: "We inevitably regret to see cases tried in the media rather than in the courts. I suppose if anyone asked us if we regretted unauthorized disclosures of information about anything at any time, we would say yes."
Customs Service Probe
On July 8, Customs Service officials disclosed that the Justice Department was investigating allegations that Israeli agents illegally obtained the technology necessary to make cluster bombs, a devastating weapon that the United States has refused to sell to Israel since the Israeli army used it during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Cluster bombs, usually weighing about 500 pounds, consist of a large pod containing as many as 300 small bombs that are spewed by a timing device over a wide area. The bomblets explode on impact or at pretimed delayed intervals and are designed for use against both personnel and other targets.
Israel insisted that it developed its own cluster bombs without the help of purloined U.S. technology and complained that the leak was intended to damage U.S.-Israeli relations.
Bush is scheduled to leave Friday on an 11-day trip to Israel, Jordan and Egypt--the first visit to the region by a top U.S. official since Secretary of State George P. Shultz traveled to those three countries in May, 1985.
Asked if Bush would talk about the Pollard and cluster bomb cases, which have put unaccustomed strains on U.S.-Israel relations, a senior Administration official replied, "Beyond question."
The official, who briefed reporters on the condition that he would not be identified by name, said the vice president also would discuss with Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders the implications of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' dramatic trip to Morocco for meetings with King Hassan II.
Although Washington was informed of the Peres-Hassan meeting several days in advance, the official said the United States has received few details on the substance of the talks.
"We don't know where the meeting will lead," the official said. "The fact that it took place is itself historic. It improves the atmosphere of the (Arab-Israeli) peace process. . . . It is one of the tragedies of the area that that (sort of meeting) should seem so extraordinary."
The official said Bush hopes to learn additional information about the implications of the meeting when he meets Peres. However, the official added, Bush will not change his schedule to include a stop in Morocco.