Some chips in the bargaining between Washington and Tel Aviv prior to the Gulf crisis were two-year-old Israeli requests to buy supercomputers — mainframes that perform scientific and mathematical calculations with great speed, enabling scientists to accomplish rapidly tasks such as simulating nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches.

Various Israeli institutions, including Israel Military Industries (IMI), Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute and the Haifa University Technion, are seeking to buy as many as six Cray and IBM machines: IMI produces powerful rocket motors for the Jericho II intermediate range missile; Hebrew University physicists work at the Sorek nuclear weapons laboratory; Weizmann Institute scientists are studying the laser process for nuclear enrichment; and Technion physicists work at the Dimona nuclear weapons complex. A Technion brochure boasts that the Cray supercomputer will do calculations that now take eight years in only one month.

A high-level Federal inter-agency task force, the Special Nuclear Export Committee, has not acted on the requests for export permits from Cray and IBM. The administration may be using the permits to secure greater Israeli cooperation on outstanding political issues, but people who follow nuclear export matters say the deals have been, for all practical purposes, “deep-sixed.”

Opponents of the sales contend that they violate the Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement between the US, Japan, the Soviet Union and several European countries to restrict the proliferation of advanced rocket technology. A major factor in withholding approval of the Israeli sale, according to press reports, is US concern over Israeli military cooperation with South Africa. Last fall the US leaked information that IMI is providing South Africa the means to manufacture rocket motors in return for use of South African missile flight test ranges.

The US and Japan agreed in 1984 not to sell supercomputers to countries that refuse to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The problem, says John Markoff, who covers computer technology developments for the New York Times, is that supercomputer technology has spread beyond the control of these two countries. Israel is now reportedly talking with a West German manufacturer, Suprenum, and Israel’s own very advanced computer design centers — joint ventures with American firms including IBM, Intel, Motorola, National and Texas Instruments — may be capable of generating enhancements sufficient to accomplish these advanced weapon design tasks.

Gary Milhollin, whose article in the Washington Post last April provided the most extensive expose of the nuclear connections of the prospective Israeli supercomputer customers, agrees that the sales to Israel do not seem to be going anywhere. “But the US government won’t confirm that the deals are dead,” he says, “so I can’t declare victory. It’s possible they’re just waiting for a more propitious time.” Milhollin is more dubious about Israel’s capacity to acquire supercomputer capacity independently. “If that’s the case, why are they trying so hard to buy American?” he asks.

Brazil and India, which like Israel have refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, are also seeking to purchase supercomputers from the US. The Brazilian aerospace company, Embraer, is involved in a rocket development program in Iraq.

Aramco, the Saudi-based oil company, managed to secure a Cray II in late January for tasks such as reservoir modeling. Israeli officials charge that Iraq has networks capable of accessing the Aramco machine for weapons development tasks, but experts here say they are skeptical of this claim.

Tying Aid

Sen. Robert Dole (R-KS) made headlines last January when he proposed that Washington reduce foreign military and economic aid by 5 percent across the board to major recipients. In the face of howls from partisans of Israel, he and the administration he spoke for claimed they were not targeting the country which just happens to be far and away the largest beneficiary.

Surprisingly there was no flurry of publicity in June when Congressman David Obey (D-WI) opened the House of Representatives debate on the foreign aid bill for fiscal year 1991. Obey, who chairs the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, warned that he would support cuts in future US aid to Israel in the amount Israel spends to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Obey saved his comments on the Middle East for the end of his 20-minute speech. “Frankly,” he began, “I am being asked by a lot of [House] Members what we are doing with respect to funding for Israel.” Following an obligatory chastisement of the PLO for its “incredibly stupid” behavior around the abortive sea raid by Abu al-‘Abbas’ faction in late May, Obey warned the Shamir government that “if Israel expands their settlements in any way, or if they add a single new settlement, I will make a flat commitment right now that [I] will support any request made by the administration to reduce aid to Israel in next year’s bill to reflect the cost of that expansion.”

The Appropriations Committee report which contained the foreign aid bill noted that “the Committee has a right to expect that within five years the Arabs, the Palestinians and Israel will have taken steps sufficient to serve as the basis for a lasting and just peace…. Resolution of the Middle East problems simply must occur because the resources currently applied to policy in this region are needed to address other human needs.”

The committee report also addressed the Third World debt crisis, observing that much of the $65 billion in US government loans and $22 billion in loan guarantees are “not collectible.” Egypt has a total outstanding debt of about $50 billion, including $12 billion to the US Treasury and is scheduled to repay the US in 1990 more than $1 billion on past loans and interest — three quarters of it military debt. This is considerably more than the $815 million in US economic aid to Egypt this year. In 1993, Egypt’s repayment schedule calls for a capital transfer of more than $1.5 billion. (The report also cites estimates that Egyptian individuals keep as much as $40 billion in overseas bank accounts.)

Challenging Mel Levine

When Secretary of State James Baker publicly recited the White House phone number in June, telling the Shamir government to call when it was serious about peace, he was wagging his finger at Mel Levine, the Congressman from Los Angeles who can be counted on to defend each and every official Israeli action or policy, no matter how bloody or outrageous.

In June, David Barret Cohen won the Republican primary to run for Mel Levine’s House seat in November. Cohen, like Levine, is Jewish, and considers himself a strong supporter of Israel. But unlike Levine, and unlike the vast majority of American politicians, Cohen argues that “the Palestinian people have rights as well” and that “we must find a way for a free and independent Palestine to live side by side and at peace with Israel.”

Those remarks are from Cohen’s kickoff speech for the primary campaign last February. A few paragraphs later, Cohen observed that “Mel Levine has never criticized the government of Israel…. We don’t need kneejerk yes-men like Mel Levine.”

This is not how the pro-Israel lobby here sees it, of course, so it will be interesting to see how the campaign develops. “For now it’s in Mel Levine’s best interest to ignore me, and that’s what he’s done so far,” Cohen told me in late July. When I asked him if Palestine-Israel was the main issue in the campaign, Cohen said it was not, but that “it is the one I feel strongest about emotionally.” His campaign is trying to arrange appearances before Jewish community groups, and Cohen said he hopes to pressure Levine into a public debate about Israel.

Cohen told me he found it interesting that much of the interest so far in his campaign has come from “the left,” since this is not where he places himself on the spectrum — “Rainbow on the Right” is a Cohen campaign slogan. Levine’s district, which Mel has represented since 1982, includes a number of aerospace and other firms that rely heavily on Pentagon contracts. Cohen says Levine will be vulnerable to constituent unhappiness over his “anti-defense” stance, and he plans to make this an issue in the campaign.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Washington Watch," Middle East Report 166 (September/October 1990).

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