DOTTED with wind-sculpted acacia trees and salt bushes, the broad savannah of Israel's central Arava Valley could easily pass for a scene from the film ``Out of Africa.'' Prized by environmentalists, this pristine stretch of sand and limestone along the Jordanian border is one of the last unspoiled desert areas in Israel. But if the United States has its way, the site will soon be transformed by a forest of antennas that will beam Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Liberty broadcasts to Central Asia, Africa, and Europe.
US officials say the $290 million project is needed to promote democratic values in regions of the world still untouched by the recent political earthquakes. The collapse of the Iron Curtain has made the VOA station an anachronism, respond environmentalists and Arava residents, whose last-ditch campaign to stop the project also cites potential health hazards and dangers to wildlife.
The fate of the relay station could come next week when an Israeli planning board decides whether to recommend final approval for construction to begin.
With 37 antennas, the VOA complex would be one of the largest and most powerful of its kind in the world.
When Israel gave conditional approval for the project three years ago, few took notice. Since then two events have turned it into a minor cause c'el`ebre.
After reconsidering the matter, the Israeli Air Force, which uses most of Israel's Negev Desertfor training flights, decided that emissions from the antennas could interfere with aircraft navigation systems. Determined to stay out of the controversy, the Air Force has asked to move its operations south and to turn one of Israel's last two desert nature reserves into a firing range.
Meanwhile, new scientific research has indicated possible radiation-related health risks to residents of the farming settlements located near the VOA site and on local wildlife, including tens of millions of migratory birds.
``Emerging evidence no longer allows a categorical denial that risks exist,'' concludes a report last year by the Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress.
The two issues galvanized opposition in Israel that is supported by several US conservation organizations. Last week they testified in congressional hearings on the negative environmental effects of the VOA station.
The US has shrugged off warnings of health hazards, saying 50 years of broadcasting with high-powered shortwave stations has shown no evidence of risks.
US officials also stress the economic benefits of the relay station, which will broadcast news and features ``promoting democratic values'' to Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics of Central Asia. The project will create 500 jobs before start-up in 1993; this is part of an estimated $1 billion that will go into the economy before Israel formally takes title to the facility 25 years later.
Israeli officials were initially cool to the project, fearing the broadcasts could jeopardize prospects for normalizing relations with the Soviet Union. But with more than $3 billion in US aid flowing to Israel annually, political observers say, Israeli approval has never been in serious doubt.
Environment Minister Ronni Milo reconfirmed Israel's support for the project last week.
But local residents, who stand to receive $16 million in ``well-being'' money from the US, have said ``thanks, but no thanks.''
``The minute they have some proof [of health hazards] they'll close it down,'' says Audrey Shemesh from Iddan, a village half a mile from the VOA site. ``But ... I'm not going to sit around and wait for that to happen.''
``Why does America have to spend $300 million to spread propaganda when the Russians are letting it in the door free?,'' asks Joe Shadur of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
``Radio played a role in the resurgence of democracy in East Europe. Conceivably it could play a similar role in [Soviet] Central Asia,'' responds a US official here.