WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry agreed Sunday to jointly develop a laser weapon to defend Israel against Katyusha rockets, which Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon use to attack northern Israeli towns.
The anti-Katyusha system, which Perry said should be ready for testing in Israel before the end of next year, marked an upbeat start for a three-day visit by Peres to the United States.
In addition to the laser project, Perry and Peres agreed on a satellite intelligence program that could warn Israel of incoming ballistic missiles within seconds of launch. A similar plan during the Persian Gulf War was shelved after Iraq's defeat eliminated the immediate danger of Iraqi Scud missiles raining on Israel.
Later Sunday, the prime minister and President Clinton exchanged lavish words of praise for each other and for the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Peres hailed Clinton as the staunchest friend the Jewish state has ever had in the White House.
In back-to-back speeches before several thousand cheering American supporters of Israel, Clinton and Peres used similar language to argue that the Washington-Jerusalem alliance is the cornerstone of efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
"This relationship will remain so strong and so vital that no one will ever be able to drive a wedge between us," Clinton said. "Our strategic cooperation is greater than ever."
For his part, Peres told Clinton: "You have led the struggle for a better life in our part of the world--and you succeeded."
The speeches to the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the mainstay of the pro-Israel lobby, followed talks at the Pentagon between Peres and Perry that resulted in the agreement on the laser project.
Perry and Peres did not explain how the planned laser, which is based on the U.S.-designed Nautilus laser, could stop Katyushas, which have a relatively short flight time and can be fired in bunches. But Perry said that while the new laser system is under development, the two countries will work on less-sophisticated measures to provide some defense from rocket attacks across the Lebanese border.
The Pentagon has already tested the laser, although not against a target as small as a Katyusha rocket.
Perry also promised continued U.S. funding for Israel's Arrow antimissile system, a weapon designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles.
Peres began his visit to the United States just one day after a cease-fire between the Israeli army and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah went into effect, ending 16 days of fighting that left more than 150 dead.
The Clinton administration, which has made little secret of its preference for Peres in next month's Israeli elections, intends to make his visit a showcase of U.S.-Israeli cooperation. Peres said the statement of intent he and Perry signed during a Pentagon ceremony underscored a defense relationship "as good as one could hope for or think of."
With this year's elections in both Israel and the United States, the joint appearance by Clinton and Peres at the AIPAC convention took on strong political overtones.
Greeted by shouts of "four more years," a beaming Clinton turned to Peres and said: "Prime Minister, I just thought I was tired because it was late Sunday night. I've never felt better in my life."
Although Peres repeatedly thanked Clinton for his support and referred to the president as "a great leader of the free world," the Israeli chief also plans to meet with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) today and with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the Republican chairmen of the Senate and House foreign affairs committees Tuesday.
The Israeli prime minister said the Lebanon truce, brokered by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, will allow the stalled Arab-Israeli peace negotiations to resume.
"Let's face it, fighting terror is enabling the peace process to go ahead," Peres, who is also Israel's defense minister, said at a Pentagon news conference. "It is two sides of the same coin."
The cease-fire also lifted a potential cloud from Peres' visit to Washington. Although the Clinton administration supported Israel's contention that Hezbollah started the brief cross-border war by firing Katyushas at northern Israel, the lopsided nature of the conflict had begun to draw some criticism in the United States from outside the government.
Lebanese civilians suffered the brunt of the Israeli offensive. In addition to the 150 Lebanese killed, more than 200 were wounded and countless homes were damaged or destroyed. No Israelis died in the Katyusha attacks, although about 50 were injured.
Asked whether he is concerned that the Israeli attacks seemed to turn previously neutral Lebanese into Hezbollah sympathizers, Peres replied that Lebanese civilians should recognize that Hezbollah was ultimately responsible for the destruction caused by Israeli bombs and shells.
"If it wouldn't be for Hezbollah, nothing [in Lebanon] would have happened," he said.
Opinion polls show Peres running slightly ahead of his chief opponent, conservative Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, as the May 29 elections draw near. But observers believe that more suicide bombings like the ones that terrorized Israel earlier this year or a renewal of the Katyusha attacks could hurt Peres' standing with voters.
Peres is an outspoken advocate of U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria, while Netanyahu is far more skeptical of the peace process. This accounts for the Clinton administration's conclusion that a Peres victory would advance U.S. objectives.
The U.S.-Israeli agreement on the anti-Katyusha project gives Peres some political cover by demonstrating that his government and its U.S. backers are trying to do something to end the danger of rocket attacks on Kiryat Shemona and other border towns.