Israel Sees Arms Charges As Attempt to Damage Relations with Washington

Israel believes it is the victim of a coordinated attempt by U.S. government officials to undermine its relations with Washington through a series of leaks alleging that the Jewish state is transferring American weapons technology to third countries.

While no formal accusation has been made here, that clearly is the view of many ranking government officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who is meeting Monday in Washington with U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

“A coordinated, badmouthing campaign” is how Deputy Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the situation Sunday.

He spoke of “an obvious campaign aimed at denigrating Israel and sabotaging its relations with the United States.”

Health Minister Ehud Olmert suggested to reporters after the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday that there is a systematic effort in some U.S. circles to interfere in the Israeli election campaign.

“I am very unhappy at what I see and hear coming from the administration,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk had determined in a draft report that Israel has re-exported certain advanced American arms technologies to third countries without U.S. permission.

That apparently leaked story came on the heels of one in The Washington Times last week alleging that Israel transferred U.S. Patriot antimissile technology to China.

South Africa, Chile, Ethiopia and other countries have been mentioned as recipients of U.S. technology unlawfully transferred by Israel, according to reports in U.S. newspapers and television newscasts last week.

‘BUREAUCRATIC WAR’ BEING WAGED

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday that the inspector general’s investigation covered a series of countries, not just Israel, and would be made public in two weeks.

It was conducted for the State Department’s Office of Defense Trade Controls, which issues licenses for U.S. weapons technology exports and is supposed to monitor the recipients’ compliance with the applicable conditions.

The concern expressed by Israeli officials that a deliberate campaign to “smear Israel” is afoot got some credibility from a New York Times report Sunday by diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman.

Friedman wrote that a “bureaucratic war” was being waged between pro- and anti-Israel camps inside the Bush administration to influence administration policy toward the Jewish state.

In Jerusalem, the Cabinet did not formally discuss the matter at its weekly session, but senior ministers are clearly involved in ongoing consultations in other forums.

The Prime Minister’s Office, backing up Arens and his aides visiting the United States, issued a flat denial of the allegations over the weekend.

In Washington, Israeli Embassy spokeswoman Ruth Yaron issued a statement Friday saying that “Israel’s policy is to adhere strictly to the procurement and technology transfer regulations.

“The allegations discussed in various press reports are sensitive matters which are subject to negotiations between the government of Israel and the government of the United States,” the statement said.

The Israeli media broadly echoed the government’s denials Sunday insofar as they pertained to the two most serious allegations — that Israel transferred Patriot missile technology to China and technology related to the U.S.-funded Arrow missile-defense project to South Africa.

Some commentators were less definite about allegations relating to air-to-air missiles and to cluster bombs.

But they observed that those allegations referred to episodes several years ago. All stressed that Israel has since tightened procedures relating to weapons technology of U.S. origin.

DENIAL ‘MORE FIRM THAN EVER’

Ze’ev Schiff, respected military analyst for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, wrote Sunday that U.S. intelligence reports purporting to finger Israel on the Patriot and Arrow allegations were not necessarily reliable.

“American intelligence has made serious mistakes in the past,” Schiff noted pointedly.

He said “a top-level re-examination” by the Israel Defense Force over the weekend has made Israel “more firm than ever in its denial.”

Netanyahu, in a radio interview, said he was fully confident that Arens would be able to “prove conclusively” that the allegations were without foundation.

Opposition politicians rallied to the government on this issue.

Former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who will lead the Labor Party in the June 23 elections, stressed that Israel always scrupulously adheres to the legal restrictions imposed on U.S. arms transfers.

Yossi Sarid of the Citizens Rights Movement and Yair Tsaban of Mapam said, on the other hand, that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, of which both are veteran members, should have been more diligent in monitoring Israel’s arms-exports industry.

But the committee chairman, Eliahu Ben-Elissar of Likud, linked the affair to the generally worsening state of relations between Washington and Jerusalem.

Relations have been strained by the Bush administration’s insistence on linking requested U.S. loan guarantees with an Israeli freeze on construction in the administered territories.

But according to Schiff, the source of this episode may lie in an ongoing dispute within the administration over whether to sell Israel various advanced military technologies and systems.

American arms producers are siding with those in government who opposed such transfers, Schiff wrote.

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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