What Happened to Qualitative Superiority?

NEW YORK - A question for George Bush, President of the United States: Where did the concept coined by his predecessor Bill Clinton, "qualitative superiority," disappear to?

NEW YORK - A question for George Bush, President of the United States: Where did the concept "qualitative superiority" disappear to? His predecessor, Bill Clinton, promised at every opportunity that America was committed to Israel's security and to preserving the qualitative superiority of the Israel Defense Forces in the Middle East.

That promise was eroded, at least publicly, when the White House changed hands. In the speech in which he delineated his vision of the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke of an iron-clad commitment to Israel's security. There was no mention of qualitative superiority.

Israeli and American officials, as well as Israeli lobbyists in Washington, say they are not disturbed by the formulations. At meetings on strategic cooperation and other closed-door forums, administration officials reiterate their commitment to Israeli military superiority and discuss, with their Israeli colleagues, ways to preserve it.

Powell spoke of this at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in April. Israel is worried not about American words, but by the actions of the government and its intentions to continue selling large numbers of weapons to Arab states.

"Qualitative superiority" is a slippery concept, the definition of which has been the subject of much discussion, but it can be viewed as meaning three things:

l Maintaining Israel's strategic deterrence and avoiding the application of pressure that could impair Israel's nuclear option;

l Supplying advanced American weaponry to the IDF;

l Restricting the technology provided to Arab countries in general and Egypt in particular.

The last item is currently being put to the test. The administration wants to provide Egypt with advanced warships armed with Harpoon missiles that can hit naval and land targets with great accuracy and which in Israel are known as "the poor man's Tomahawk." The Ministry of Defense has informed the United States that Israel views the deal as a threat to its security and a blow to its qualitative superiority.

Friends of Israel in the Congress managed to slightly delay the deal by posing tough questions, but in early November the administration began the formal procedure of reporting the Egyptian deal to Congress. The lesson is that if the administration wants it, the missiles will not stop at Capitol Hill.

The United States is reshaping its relationships with its Arab friends. At the head of this list are Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of which disappointed the United States with their hesitant support following the attacks of September 11. The Americans learned that the concept of "allies" is perceived differently in the Arab world, and sharp criticism of the regimes in Cairo and Riyadh has become fashionable in Washington.

The Israeli fear is that in order to regain its close relationships with President Hosni Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdallah, the Americans will return to their old methods and bribe their Arab friends with a steady stream of advanced armaments. This would also benefit American industry.

All of that weaponry, however, is superfluous. The threats to Egypt and the Gulf states are not external ones. All these states are closely protected by the Americans. The threats to their survival come from internal instability. If the regimes collapse, then the advanced weapons are liable to fall into the wrong hands, as happened in Iran following its Islamic Revolution. Israel is less concerned about the arming of the United Arab Emirates or of distant Kuwait. The neighboring state of Egypt is a different matter, despite Mubarak's promises that he will not wage war.

The Americans have been telling Israel for years not to interfere with its weapons sales to Egypt. They claim the IDF's qualitative superiority is being preserved with the quality of its arms, as well as that of its commanders and its training. Egypt receives $1.3 billion in military aid, about two-thirds of Israel's military aid package. It would not risk this aid in a war with Israel.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not of a mind to open up a new front with Egypt or to bring up the latest arms deal during his current visit to Washington. He prefers to let the friends of Israel deal with the issue, without leaving behind tracks that lead to Jerusalem.

However, Washington's anger at the Egyptians provides Israel with a good opportunity to reexamine the components of its qualitative superiority and to influence the relations of the United States in the regions by means of the Congress, which is filled with hostility for the Arabs at present.