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New Shield for More-Vulnerable Israel: US

Faced with growing military threats from its neighbors, Israel signs a deal that may bring the US to its defense.

In sharp contrast to the high-profile White House signing ceremony that sealed last month's Mideast peace agreement, President Clinton has quietly signed a far-reaching American guarantee of Israeli security that stops just short of a defense treaty.

The deal, signed separately by Mr. Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend after months of negotiations, pledges the United States to enhance Israel's "defensive and deterrent capabilities."

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The deal will also help Mr. Netanyahu persuade hard-liners that Israel will be compensated for handing back more West Bank land to Palestinians.

The closer security alliance is a recognition that Israel's traditional policy of military self-reliance may no longer be sufficient to protect it from longer-range ballistic missiles that are changing the face of the Middle East.

Israeli officials point especially to potential threats from Iran - which in July tested the Shahab-3 missile, with an 800-mile range that can strike Israel - and Iraq, which during the 1991 Gulf War fired primitive Scud missiles at Israel. "The focus now is on 'over the horizon' threats," says Shai Feldman, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The question of direct intervention by the US may prove to be the deal's weak point.

"So this is about missiles," Mr. Feldman says. "But more than anything else, this is a political statement [to Israel from the US]: 'If you take risks for peace, we will back you up and try to reduce the threat.' "

Enemies of Israel, he says, should be worried about the enhancement of America's already extensive ties to the Jewish state: "The deal doesn't threaten them, but their ability to threaten us is diminished."

Iraq has been largely disarmed by United Nations weapons inspectors, but technical expertise remains. And Iran is widely believed by Western intelligence officials to be secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.

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Adding to the list, Syria has a vast arsenal of Scud missiles that can hit targets anywhere in Israel, and it has the most sophisticated chemical-weapons programs in the Mideast.

An already formidable Israel

By contrast, Israel already has the most formidable military force in the region. Its own array of ballistic missiles can reach any target in the "outer ring" of states like Iran, and its maximum range can be intercontinental.

Though it is officially denied, experts say that Israel also has a nuclear arsenal of some 200 to 400 bombs, with boosted destructive power.

Though not known to maintain large stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, Israel is believed to be capable of producing such nonconventional arms. It recently confirmed that an Israeli cargo jet that crashed in Amsterdam in 1992 was carrying large quantities of three of the four ingredients for the deadly nerve gas Sarin - a substantial amount that Tel Aviv says was to be used for testing gas masks.

The new US-Israel Memorandum of Agreement - a legally binding executive accord that does not require the approval of Congress - is similar to one from 1975, but this one carries a presidential signature.

It is "a virtual US umbrella" against missile attack, an Israeli government source told Ha'aretz newspaper, which "preserves Israel's right to self-defense, but incorporates beyond this an American layer."

"We have the advantages of a [defense] treaty," the Ha'aretz source added, "without the disadvantages."

The deal may be a surprise to some Arab nations, which often can't imagine that US-Israel ties could be closer. For Palestinians - who for nine days were locked in tough US-brokered peace talks with Israel at Wye - the deal is likely to undermine America's self-described role as an "honest broker."

Current commitments

The only concrete US military presence now in the region focuses on the Persian Gulf, where some 20,000 American troops have been deployed to protect oil-rich allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait since the Gulf War.

Since Israel signed the 1979 Camp David peace accord with Egypt, it receives more than $3 billion a year in US largess alone - $1.8 billion for military procurement and $1.2 billion for military-related economic assistance.

Despite a few embarrassing episodes such as the Jonathan Pollard spy case - in which a Jewish-American naval intelligence officer gave volumes of top-secret US documents to Israel - US commitments to ensuring that Israel maintains its "qualitative" military edge in the region have for years been "iron-clad."

As part of the Camp David accord, Egypt receives $2.1 billion annually, mostly for arms purchases. The total "aid" to both countries accounts for 85 percent of the entire US foreign-aid budget.

US-Israel intelligence sharing is routine. Several joint military technology projects are under way, including the $1.6 billion Arrow antiballistic missile program, and high-level security meetings are convened every six months to assess regional threats.

"The question is whether this agreement will really place the strategic threats facing Israel on a higher plane among American priorities," notes an editorial in the Jerusalem Post.

Israel has already been indirectly helped by US moves to counter the proliferation of nuclear and missile material from countries such as Russia and former Soviet states to Iran and Iraq.

Not bound to intervention

But the question of direct intervention by the US - which is not required by the accord - may prove to be its weak point. Washington will view missile threats to Israel "with particular gravity," it states, but is bound only to consultation on what support or assistance, "diplomatic or otherwise," it can provide.

"This agreement is significant, but with one condition: At the time it is to be implemented, US-Israel relations must be good," says Reuven Pedatzur, a missile expert and director of the Galili Center for Strategic and National Security at Tel Aviv University.

"So Israel must decide which is more important: holding on to an extra 1 percent of the West Bank [against US wishes], or future strategic security."

America's interest in the deal stretches further than Israel, Mr. Pedatzur says.

"A balance of terror in the Mideast is very dangerous," he says, "and an Israel threatened by those things is a very dangerous Israel. So this deal gives Israel confidence for the future."

The benefit for an embattled prime minister shouldn't be discounted either, says Gabriel Sheffer, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Netanyahu "needs everything. His coalition is very shaky."

The deal is more symbolism than substance because "Israel already gets whatever it needs."

"It's not a quantum leap forward, there are no secrets in this, and symbolically it was very important," Mr. Sheffer says. "But if I were Syrian or Iranian, I wouldn't rely on that analysis. I would be very concerned."

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