Israel Backs Down in Face-off With U.S. Over Arms to China


Forward
Date: 06-26-05

By MARC PERELMAN

Jerusalem appears to have blinked in a bitter showdown with the Pentagon over Israeli weapon sales to China.

The fight, which revolved around Israel's growing military ties with China, produced clashes between Israeli and American defense officials and triggered a partial lapse in military cooperation. On Sunday, in a radio interview, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom apologized to the United States for the export spat.

"If things were done that were not acceptable to the Americans, then we are sorry, but these things were done with the utmost innocence," Shalom told Israel Radio in remarks that coincided with a visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and, ironically, their Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing.

Also on Sunday, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported that Israel would submit a formal letter of apology to Washington this week and agree to American vetting of its weapons sales to ensure they would not harm American interests. In addition, Yediot reported, four senior Israeli defense ministry officials are being replaced, including the ministry's director general, Amos Yaron, who was fingered by American officials as the main culprit in the China flap.

The flap comes as American and European leaders grow more anxious ? and often disagree ? over the emergence of China on the world stage, both as an economic powerhouse and as a political force eager to assert itself militarily and diplomatically. In particular, Bush administration officials have been worried about the Israeli role in China's military buildup and about the threat that Beijing's development poses to Taiwan and to American forces in East Asia.

With its recent moves, Israel appears bent on allaying such American fears and ending a rare crisis in relations with its main international ally. At the same time, by forcing Israel to back down, the Bush administration is expected to gain leverage in its effort to convince the European Union to maintain its arms embargo against China, which was put in place after Beijing's crackdown on pro-democracy students in 1989. In their discussions with Washington over lifting the E.U. embargo, European officials have repeatedly pointed to Israel's continued military cooperation with China. Even though the E.U. eventually acceded to U.S. demands to preserve the embargo, the issue is likely to come up again in coming months.

In an e-mail from China, Derek Mitchell, a former Pentagon director of China affairs in the Clinton administration, argued that the United States had taken an important step with its willingness to face down Jerusalem.

The "hard line" adopted by the State and Defense departments toward Israel "sends an important signal to Europe about the seriousness with which [America] takes the matter and the dangers of Europe underestimating this seriousness," said Mitchell, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A Western diplomat based in China concurred. The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said that by browbeating its close Israeli ally, Washington had signaled a willingness to be even harsher with European countries.

The dispute reached a boiling point this spring when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly berated his Israeli counterpart, Shaul Mofaz. Also to underscore its anger at Jerusalem, the Pentagon took the unusual step of announcing the suspension of information sharing with Israel on the American-led, multinational effort to produce the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Ha'aretz reported that the United States had also halted cooperation on several projects, frozen delivery of sensitive equipment, and was even refusing to answer telephone calls from Israeli defense officials.

Even though Rice signaled progress on the issue and Shalom's apology seemed to indicate that a compromise was close, a Pentagon official said that an agreement had yet to be reached on a vetting mechanism for Israeli sales to China. The Pentagon official said that for now, Israel was still suspended from receiving some information on the new attack aircraft.

"At this time there are some types of technology and information ? not all, but some ? that we are not comfortable sharing until we resolve some of the standing technology and security issues," the Pentagon official said. He added that no deadlines were in place for ending the talks and that the concerns about technology transfers were wide ranging.

On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters at a regular briefing that American concerns over its military cooperation with Israel were "groundless and unreasonable" and that China and Israel should "overcome external interferences" when developing their relations.

But Li did not comment on the exports dispute during his visit to Israel. Observers said that the silence indicated a Chinese willingness to solve the issue quietly ? in sharp contrast to Beijing's angry reaction after Israel was forced to cancel the sale of a Phalcon radar system under pressure from Washington in 2000. Israel eventually agreed to pay $350 million in compensation and is now China's second-largest military supplier after Russia.

America's reaction, suspending some information sharing last month, stemmed from Israel's technological cooperation with China on an unmanned attack drone, Harpy, which Israel sold to China several years ago.

Beijing sent back the unmanned planes to state-owned manufacturer Israel Aircraft Industries last year for what Jerusalem claims was routine maintenance. But then American officials contended that Israel was in fact upgrading the drones in violation of an American-Israeli monitoring mechanism and ordered Israel not to return them to China.

Israeli military officials have said that work on the Harpy has been frozen pending a resolution of the dispute with both Washington and Beijing. Even though Israeli officials denied that the Harpy issue had been brought up in discussions with Li during his visit, his presence in Israel and China's muted reaction to Israel's retreat suggested that a compromise on the Harpy was in the works.

The extent of the threat posed by China's military has been a topic of intense debate within the administration and even within the Pentagon.

The Defense Department was expected to release an annual report on the 20-year outlook of China's military to Congress in March. However, sources say, publication of the report has been delayed by internal Pentagon squabbling over the extent of the Chinese buildup.

The report is expected to lay out American concerns about Israel's military cooperation with China, especially on a new fighter jet reportedly built with Israeli technology, according to published reports. The fighter is allegedly modeled on Israel's Lavi warplane, a joint American-Israel project that collapsed in the face of political opposition in the mid-1980s.

In early June, Rumsfeld gave an indication of the Pentagon's overall position when he charged during a speech in Singapore that China's military expenditures were much higher than the official figures. He also questioned the motives behind Beijing's military buildup.



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