Tuesday, January 25, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israeli lawmakers credit U.S. and Israeli public pressure for stalling a sale of sophisticated Russian missile systems to Syria but warn that the deal is “still pending” and may proceed quietly in coming months.

“The Russians and Syrians have not abandoned this potentially dangerous transaction,” said Knesset Deputy Roman Bronfman of the opposition Shinui party, one of the most outspoken critics of the plan. “American and Israeli eyes will be watching and studying the situation as it develops from here on out.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Moscow this week, told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that reports of a plan to sell his country ground-to-ground SS-26 Iskander-E and shoulder-fired SA-18 Igla missiles were groundless.

“Russia’s defense minister has said that such a deal does not exist and thus he has answered the question,” Mr. Assad was quoted as saying.

But Israeli politicians insist that the deal, first reported in the Russian daily Kommersant, was put on hold only because of public pressure from Israel and the United States. The paper valued the Igla sale at $20 million.

Ehud Ya’ari, one of Israel’s leading commentators on Arab affairs, told Israel’s TV Channel Two that deliveries of the missiles “are still pending” and may be consummated without publicity “in the months ahead.”

Israeli observers fear the military balance of power in the region will be upset if the missiles go to Syria, which Kommersant said “already has the largest surface-to-surface missile force in the Arab world.”

The Iskander-E is radar-evasive, maneuverable in flight and highly accurate. It has a 1-ton warhead and can reach two-thirds of Israel, including the top-secret nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev Desert.

Israel’s intelligence community worries that Syria might make the Igla missiles available to the Hezbollah guerrillas deployed in southern Lebanon, posing a serious threat to Israeli helicopters.

Israeli officials said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made an urgent phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin before Mr. Assad’s arrival in the Russian capital on Monday, urging him to call off the deal.

“I have every reason to believe that the good state of relations that currently exists between Moscow and Jerusalem will continue,” Mr. Sharon said afterward.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said, “Israel has expressed concern to the Russians about the sale and understands that the Russians are taking this into account.”

But Mr. Bronfman said he thinks Mr. Putin is committed to exporting state-of-the-art weapons and equipment to Third World states.

“The prime minister did not accomplish anything. This is an ongoing crisis,” he said, charging that Russia has become the world’s second-biggest arms exporter after the United States.

“Russian arms exports in 2001 totaled $3.2 billion and rose to $5.7 billion in 2004,” he said. “Weaponry and military gear constitute Russia’s third-biggest industry after oil and gas.”

Moscow’s daily Pravda newspaper reported two weeks ago that the Russian president had assured Mr. Sharon during their last meeting in the Kremlin that “Russo-Syrian cooperation in the military sphere posed no threat to Israel’s security.”

He also told Mr. Sharon that the missile deal would not be closed during Mr. Assad’s visit to the Kremlin, according to Pravda, which reflected Communist Party thinking during the Soviet era and now mirrors Mr. Putin’s thinking.

Kommersant predicted that Mr. Putin would write off $10 billion of the $13.4 billion debt that Damascus owed the former Soviet Union for its arms deliveries before 1991.

It described the debt amnesty as “a Soviet-style tactic” designed to maintain bilateral relations and stimulate weapons orders.

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