Feinstein fights Israel over plan to export Uzis to U.S.

Jack Berman was shot dead with an assault weapon, also in San Francisco.

It was for Berman, president of the American Jewish Congress' San Francisco region, that Feinstein's group did all it could to support the ban.

Now the California Democrat is waging another battle over assault weapons — this time with the Israeli government.

The AJCongress appears ready to support her.

Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms granted Israel Military Industries, owned by the Israeli government, permission to export modified versions of the Uzi and Galil military-style assault weapons to the United States.

Feinstein was furious.

"I had hoped that the values of Israel were above shipping weapons of war to the streets of America," Feinstein said in a telephone interview this week.

"I was absolutely shocked to see that an official Israeli company would be willing to export tens of thousands of Uzis and Galils to this country."

Feinstein was head of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in late 1978 when then-Mayor George Moscone was assassinated in his city hall office by another member of the board.

Feinstein, who later became mayor, has been a staunch gun-control advocate ever since.

The Israelis modified the guns "just enough" from their original design to fall outside the technical definition of assault weapons banned under U.S. law, said Feinstein.

"Technically, they are legal. But this certainly violates the spirit of the law and, I believe, impacts the national security."

Feinstein has written to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek his "personal intervention to stop this transfer of arms to the streets of America.

"I find it sadly ironic that even as American military equipment and assistance travels to Israel intended to preserve peace and save lives, an Israeli weapons manufacturer is preparing to sell military-style assault weapons in the United States that are designed not to protect, but to kill," Feinstein wrote.

An Israeli official in Washington said that Netanyahu was drafting a response.

"I would emphasize that, of course, we share Senator Feinstein's sorrow over every victim of a misuse of weapons. Of course we're not happy when Israeli weapons are used for an illegal cause," said the official, who asked not to be identified.

"Any selling of weapons or arms is only done according to the law in Israel and the U.S.," he stressed.

As for Feinstein's charge that she hoped Israel was above shipping the weapons, the official said, "There's always the question of values when you speak of shipping arms and weapons, and I'm sure that will be addressed in the prime minister's response."

President Clinton told Feinstein this week that he would look into the issue, she said.

In addition, Feinstein has asked her colleagues to sign a letter to Clinton urging him to issue an executive order banning the weapons.

So far, Feinstein has received a mixed reaction to her call for American Jewish groups to "weigh in with the Israeli government."

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which has a delegation in Israel this week, said it was planning to raise the issue during a meeting Wednesday with the Prime Minister's Office.

"JCPA has a position strongly favoring gun control," Lawrence Rubin, JCPA's executive vice chairman, said when reached in Jerusalem.

Phil Baum, executive director of AJCongress, said, "As an organization that supports gun control and supports a ban on assault weapons, we would be supportive.

"This is a cardinal issue of ours and a keystone of our program. At first blush I would support everything that Feinstein wrote," he said.

Feinstein sent her letter to 18 Jewish groups, including the National Jewish Democratic Council, which has supported the assault weapons ban.

"These are weapons that we do not need on our streets," said Stephen Silberfarb, deputy director at NJDC.

"The Israeli company should be urged to rethink this before they embark on the sale."

Indicative of the sensitivity the arms export has aroused, many other Jewish groups that received the letter refused to comment, saying they had to study the issue.

For now, only one was critical of Feinstein.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group, criticized the senator for "using her power to pressure a sovereign nation's actions.

"It's a dangerous precedent for an American elected official to get involved in issues such as this. The reaction would be quite different if members of the Knesset sent a letter to the U.S. asking that Smith and Wesson and Colt do not export their products."

Brooks said Feinstein should take up the matter with the ATF if she has a problem.

An ATF spokesman said the permit for import was issued earlier this summer and that he had no comment on Feinstein's effort.

An official at the Washington office of Israel Military Industries said the staff was unavailable for comment.