Relations between the U.S. government, American businesses and Saudi Arabia will deteriorate unless Washington curbs its support for Israel in deference to the Palestinians, according to a high-ranking Saudi official.

The statement, made last week by Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan, came on the heels of a U.S. House of Representatives vote Wednesday expressing strong support for Israel and accusing Palestinians leader Yasser Arafat and others of fomenting the latest round of month-long violence in Gaza and the West Bank.

“The American leadership, officials and even the companies which are working with us, and most of them are represented by Congress, should understand that we’ll not tolerate such statements,” the English-language wire service Arab News quoted the prince as saying. “We will not make a hasty response, and our stand is known.”

“The crisis of Palestine and its people and the issue of Jerusalem (Al Quds) … should be on our minds when we are awake or asleep. It is an issue we cannot remain quiet about. We can never accept in any way that the bombs, hands or feet of Israel desecrate al-Haram al-Sharif,” Sultan said.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration also expressed regret over the House vote. During his speech, the prince praised President Clinton as “among the best U.S. presidents” and said Clinton had taken “good steps” to help broker a final Mideast peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

However, the Saudi prince and minister gave no such praise to Congress.

“This is not the first time that the Congress says this,” Sultan said. “The American administration announced on the same day that this decision is not right and it did not agree to it.”

While some analysts saw the prince’s comments as pandering to the Arab world, others said it could have an impact on future U.S.-Saudi relations. The United States uses Saudi Arabia as a base of operations against Iraq and as a bulwark against other potentially hostile nations in the Middle East.

Also, about 200 U.S. firms — including major oil companies, defense firms and construction businesses — contract with Saudi Arabia. Those contracts are reportedly worth tens of billions of dollars to both nations.

Saudi Arabia is also a major arms buyer from the U.S., procuring sophisticated jet fighters, tanks, and armored personnel carriers.

Despite historically close ties with the U.S., Saudi officials have seen Washington as an open-ended supporter of Israel, despite what many Arabs feel is unwarranted action by the Jewish state against Palestinian demonstrators.

In another sign of the growing frustration, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah has also recently criticized the U.S. for supporting Israel. At an Arab summit last week in Egypt, he blamed Washington, in part, for the collapse of the Mideast peace process.

Abdullah also warned of “unspecified measures” that would be taken against Israel if attacks against Palestinians continued. He did say, however, that the kingdom had no plans to cut oil exports to protest U.S. support for Israel.

Middle East experts said Sultan’s anti-Washington rhetoric is rare. He is widely seen as a staunch U.S. ally — even more so than Abdullah.

Elsewhere in the Mideast today:

  • An Israeli army officer was slightly wounded by an explosive charge thrown in the direction of a patrol after being ambushed with
    gunfire by Palestinian gunmen. No other injuries were reported.

  • Palestinian gunmen opened fire at Israeli security guards outside a government welfare office in east Jerusalem today, killing one
    and critically wounding a second.

  • Israel Radio reported that hundreds of suspected Palestinian children threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers near
    the Karni Junction earlier today. Israeli army soldiers responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas, sources said.

  • Palestinian gunmen fired on and wounded two Israeli soldiers performing engineering work on the Egyptian border near Rafiah. Both soldiers were evacuated to Soroka hospital in Be’er Sheva.

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