Bibi Warns Of Missile Threat
Last week’s three-way summit between President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was front-page news around the world. But in a bilateral session at the White House, Netanyahu tried to steer the conversation to a different issue — Israeli concern about the growing threat posed by the ballistic missile arsenals of countries such as Iran.
Netanyahu warned Clinton that the time is coming when Iran will have intercontinental missiles capable of striking targets well beyond Israel.
Officials here suspected that in part, Netanyahu’s missile pitch was intended to deflect attention from differences over the peace process. But privately, several conceded that the prime minister’s arguments coincided with a growing feeling in Washington that missile development in these countries is progressing much
faster than intelligence officials had estimated.
An Israeli official confirmed that the two leaders spent considerable time talking about the missile threat.
“The prime minister raised a number of strategic issues, including new threats and old ones that are not going away,” this source said. “That included the Russian-Iranian connection, which we continue to believe requires more American attention.”
Israeli officials say the administration still does not see missile proliferation as an immediate threat to American interests — but that there are signs this is changing.
“The real fear here is we are beginning to realize how much we don’t know,” said Shoshana Bryen, special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “Recent events have demonstrated that countries like North Korea can do things we don’t know about, and that, more than anything else, is alarming people.”
Shutting down the sources of high technology, she said, remains an important goal — but it is already too late to prevent Iran and others from developing long range missiles.
Military action against facilities producing nonconventional weapons and missiles is becoming far more difficult, she said, because these countries learned an important lesson from the 1981 Israeli raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor: “Separate, bury and harden.”
As a result, she said, the emphasis needs to shift from preemption and prevention to defense. “The Israelis have been better at understanding this than the Americans, “ she said, pointing to their advanced Arrow anti-missile system — which is being developed largely with American funding.
But resistance to big-ticket missile defense systems is strong, in part because of concerns about preserving the Cold War-era Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, in part because of lingering suspicions of the Reagan administration’s nebulous, vastly expensive “star wars” program.
But a combination of factors — including insistent urging from Israel and recent indications that countries such as North Korea and Iran are much further along in their missile programs than most experts predicted — may change that.
“The bottom line is that Americans aren’t likely to get real interested in expensive missile defense systems to protect Israel, or even to protect American interests in far-away places,” said a congressional staffer.
“But when you start to see headlines about countries like Iran potentially getting intercontinental missiles, the political equation can change very fast. That’s what we’re starting to see now; Israel has blazed a trail that this country may have no choice but to follow.”
When an Israeli newspaper ran a story last week saying President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had worked out a deal during their Washington summit to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, political observers here scratched their heads.
A number agree with Pollard’s second wife that the Netanyahu government, while officially intensifying the effort to win Pollard’s release, is doing so with a wink.
The half-hearted Israeli effort, they say, is probably not enough to offset continuing strong pressure from the defense and intelligence communities aimed at keeping Pollard in jail — or the self-destructive tendency of some Pollard supporters to portray him as a Jewish hero.
Last week, Israeli officials confirmed that while the issue was raised in the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting, it was not a major part of the agenda.
And the White House quickly shot down the story.
Departing White House spokesman Mike McCurry said that the issue was raised “briefly,” but that the president “indicated that there was no change in our views on the matter and certainly no agreement.”
McCurry added that Clinton’s denial of the July, 1996 application for clemency stands, and that there is “no current pending application before the president. …If there were to be one, it would go through the channel that is established at Justice.”
Recently, the Netanyahu government indicated that it would begin lobbying Capitol Hill for Pollard’s release. That was the top item on the agenda of absorption minister Yuli Edelstein during his recent Washington visit.
But will lawmakers be swayed by something more than a cursory lobbying effort?
Congressional sources say maybe — if the pro-Pollard activists play their cards right.
“Nobody (in Congress) will accept the position that what Pollard did was right,” said a Democratic congressional staffer. “But many may be persuaded that he received a disproportionately harsh sentence, or that the government acted in bad faith in the plea bargain.”
A well-conceived Capitol Hill campaign based strictly on the humanitarian argument that Pollard has already served enough time, this source argued, could have an impact.
“But if some hard-line members of Congress or Pollard’s supporters go overboard and try to portray his actions as justified, or if they even hint at that, it will almost certainly backfire,” he said.