Planned export of Israeli assault weapons draws fire

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WASHINGTON — Sparked by Israel's decision to export thousands of assault weapons to the United States, President Clinton has decided to ban future permits for similar sales.

But Clinton has not yet decided if he will revoke the permit for the government-owned Israel Military Industries to export Uzis and Galil guns for retail sale in the United States.

In response to the pending executive directive, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, said no sales would take place for three months.

Confirming reports of Clinton's intentions, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Tuesday, "We now are seeing manufacturers who are able in a sense to clone assault weapons and slip underneath" the 1994 assault weapons ban.

"The president has been concerned about that."

The Israeli company modified its guns just enough to escape that ban. It intends to sell to an American gun distributor for retail sale in the United States.

Clinton was expected to sign two directives on the issue as early as this week.

Israel's decision to export the guns to the United States infuriated Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who, along with two-thirds of the Senate's Democrats, urged Clinton to use his presidential authority to limit foreign-made assault weapons from coming into the country.

A similar letter from Rep. Walter Capps (D-San Luis Obispo) has attracted 22 House members.

Feinstein had also urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel the sale.

In a letter to Feinstein, Ben-Elissar said Israel would cancel the planned sale of weapons if such sales are banned by the United States or if other countries with similar sales pending opt to cancel them on their own.

Feinstein, who had attacked an earlier letter from Netanyahu defending the sale, called this week's response "a tentative step forward."

In a written statement, the San Francisco Democrat added, "As I have told the representatives from Israel, I have no doubt that it is only a matter of time before these weapons fall into the hands of criminals — whether they be drive-by shooters, gangs, drug traffickers or grievance killers — and American citizens pay with their lives."

President Bush originally banned the import of the Israeli-made guns, along with other models, after five children were killed and 30 wounded in a California schoolyard by a similar weapon in 1989.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms recently approved modified versions of the Uzi and Galil for import.

Clinton's order could also affect at least a dozen other countries that have received similar permits to export their guns.

Feinstein, who was accused of singling out Israel, later urged other nations such as Russia, Greece and Bulgaria to refrain from exporting the weapons.

"I am once again imploring them to voluntarily cease and desist their plans to export assault weapons," she said in a written statement.