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Israel may be grumbling about the AWACS vote. But it might have faced a more ominous challenge if its lobbying killed the Saudi arms sale. Denied AWACS, the Saudis almost -certainly would have bought Britain's -Nimrod. Some US experts feel Nimrod would offer a far more serious military threat to Israel than the US plane. They claim that Nimrod's ''frequency agile'' radar would be much harder to jam than its counterpart on the AWACS. Its passive detection system, they add, would enable it to detect tanks and -armored vehicles, thus giving the plane a battle-management capability.

The British plane also carries -electronic counter-countermeasures gear that would not have been included on AWACS, the experts point out.

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