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Mideast Now More Dangerous--Arens

July 16, 1991|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — New world order? The world after the Persian Gulf War is a more dangerous place than ever for Israel, asserts Moshe Arens, the Israeli defense minister.

Sure, Iraq has been battered, but what about Syria? Saudi Arabia is far away, but it's buying plenty of tanks. In fact, he says, "Middle Eastern dictators" everywhere are arming themselves. How will Israel stay ahead?

One answer for Arens is more money from the United States--he wants Washington to boost Israel's military aid by almost 40%, from $1.8 billion a year to $2.5 billion.

If that sounds like a recipe for a perpetual arms race, well, from Arens' point of view, this is an existential contest for Israel. The defense minister also argues that continued Israeli expansion of settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip is no reason to withhold new military aid.

Here are excerpts from an interview last week with The Times:

Question: You have asked for a big increase in American aid--$700 million for a total of $2.5 billion. How do you justify such an amount?

Answer: The present level of aid, $1.8 billion, which is a lot of money and is greatly appreciated, has been at that level for a good number of years. So there's been an erosion just in terms of inflation. Secondly, the great arms race that has been going on in the Middle East, the sale of weaponry to Arab armies, including sale of American arms, has put an increased burden on Israel. We have to take appropriate measures when we see weaponry being sold to Arab armies.

There must be contingency planning on our part and, even if an Arab country that seemed reasonably on the defensive is sold large quantities of weapons, then it's something that . . . forces an allocation of resources. I think it is justifiable . . . the additional allocation that will allow us to deal with that situation.

Q: Can you give a specific example of something sold to an Arab country that Israel needs to counter?

A: The sale of M-1 tanks to Saudi Arabia. Anyone who puts themselves in my position should not expect that tomorrow those tanks will cross into Israel--but one has to take into consideration that under certain circumstances, these tanks would be used against Israel. No friend of Israel would advise Israel to sit back and be indifferent to that change in the military balance in the area.

Q: With Iraq weakened, shouldn't Israel be in a better position?

A: No doubt about it, Iraq has been weakened, and that's a very important step. But we look in parallel: Iraq has been weakened and the Syrian army has been strengthened. Syria happens to be even closer to Israel than Iraq.

The Syrians have come out of this war greatly strengthened in terms of financial resources at their disposal from many countries in the world, including Saudi Arabia. And Syria is in the process of massively buying new weapons. Scud missiles from North Korea is just one example.

Q: All of these things appear to foreshadow an arms spiral. . . .

A: It is very difficult. We're spending an enormous percentage of our gross domestic product on defense and we're in a position where we feel if we don't do it, we prejudice our very existence. And I think there are not many countries in the world today that are in that position.

You look at the defense expenditures of the Arab armies, more than seven or eight times Israel's expenditures. Not only do we have a great imbalance here, but an increasing imbalance.

Q: Israel did not warmly greet President Bush's proposal for arms control, which focused on weapons of mass destruction as well as conventional supplies.

A: We are definitely for taking steps to reduce the arms race in the area. In terms of the peace process, I personally think that this is the most important step to take.

We have just seen how dangerous it is when a Middle East dictator gets his hands on a very large military machine. It took the United States and its allies--and a deployment oftroops that took five months to put into place--to deal with hat danger. So we in Israel ask ourselves, what would have happened if Saddam Hussein had gone for Israel and not for Kuwait? He's not the only dictator in the area that has a large army. Today, I suppose the Syrians have the fourth-largest army in the world.

I would say the most important step that should be taken is that weapons are not sold to dictators in this area. If you can't bring about a cessation, something I have suggested, you ought to bring about a reduction. A suggestion I put forward is that we have a conference of suppliers and buyers.

Q: There appears to be a contradiction between proposed cuts in Israel's military programs and the request for more money.

A: This is not contradictory at all. It is consistent and an indication of the very difficult economic situatioN that the (Israeli Defense Forces) finds itself in, within the framework of budgets as presently allocated . . . .

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