THE United States has snubbed a key Pacific ally. At least, that's how it looks to some Australians. Canberra was not consulted until two weeks ago on a US plan to sell Israel a Patriot missile defense system. A key ingredient of the proposed deal is to provide Israel with targeting data from the US satellite early warning system, according to Pentagon officials.
That data would come from a spy satellite controlled from a US-Australia run ground station in Nurrungar, South Australia.
If the deal proceeds, Australia would be seen as a US partner in protecting Israel from the tactical ballistic missiles of its Arab neighbors, defense analysts say.
``It's extraordinary ... that the US hasn't told us about a sale which so clearly compromises Australia's Mideast policy,'' says Andrew Mack, director of the Peace Research Centre at Australia National University. Mr. Mack brought the deal to the attention of Australian Defense Minister Kim Beazley.
Nurrungar is one of three jointly run tracking facilities in Australia. The Nurrungar and the Pine Gap facility in central Australia monitor Soviet ballistic missile tests and are integral to the US early warning system. The bases have long been a sensitive issue here.
The Hawke government is downplaying the incident. Officials say that technically there has been no breach of the joint-facility agreement requiring consultations.
``Any deal is further away than people have been lead to believe. We've been told by the Pentagon no deal has been done yet, and it's far from inevitable that any deal would require the use of Nurrungar,'' says a spokesman for Mr. Beazley.
Both Mack and Australian officials suggest that the lack of consultation derives from Pentagon compartmentalization. US officials packaging the deal for Israel simply failed to take into account the Nurrungar down link, they say.
This incident follows a period of smooth relations and ``extremely satisfying levels of consultation over the joint facilities,'' says an Australian defense official.
Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced last month that talks would begin for Australia to take control of the North West Cape communications base, the third joint facility.