WASHINGTON (Apr. 2)
The Bush administration has cleared Israel of charges that it illegally provided China with U.S. technology from the Patriot anti-missile system, which was used during the Persian Gulf War to deflect Iraqi Scuds.
But at the same time, the State Department’s inspector general accused the Jewish state of engaging in “unauthorized transfers” involving other “U.S. items and technology.”
The charges appear to be among the strongest criticism ever leveled at Israel regarding its arms dealings with other nations, and they are likely to exacerbate the already severe tensions between Washington and Jerusalem.
Pro-Israel activists had expected the administration to clear Israel on the Patriot matter following the visit last week to Israel of a U.S. inspection team.
The team, led by Sinclair Martel, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, was sent to Israel after the charges surfaced in The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal three weeks ago.
Israel categorically denied the charges from the outset, and in Israel, Deputy Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Thursday that there was “not a speck of truth in the allegations.”
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Thursday that the U.S. government was giving Israel “a clean bill of health on the Patriot issue.”
LAWMAKER URGES AN APOLOGY
But that was not good enough for one pro-Israel lawmaker.
Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on President Bush to apologize to Israel. He also said the Federal Bureau of Investigation should determine who in the U.S. government leaked the charges to the press.
Tutwiler said the Israeli government has not submitted a formal request for an apology. And Secretary of State James Baker said Wednesday that it was the anonymous leaker who owed both the U.S. and Israeli governments an apology.
The broader charges on Israeli arms transfers were contained in a report released Wednesday by the State Department’s inspector general, Sherman Funk.
Its focus was whether the department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs had adequately ensured that U.S. military technology provided to Israel and other countries was not being transferred to other countries.
The report charged that the bureau had failed to inform Congress and other State Department officials that it had received information, as early as 1983, that “a major recipient of U.S. military equipment and technology” had engaged in a “systematic and growing pattern of unauthorized transfers.”
The 69-page version of the report released to the public did not name Israel directly. But pro-Israel activists said the “major recipient” was clearly a reference to Israel, which was named in the classified sections of the report released only to members of Congress.
Funk recommended that the State Department determine “to the extent possible, the value of those unauthorized transfers” and “where a legal basis for recoupment exists, obtain payment either directly or through future offsets for the appropriate amounts.”
He also urged that any future export license approvals for Israel be contingent on being able to conduct “comprehensive end-use checks.”
AVAILABLE AT HARDWARE STORES
Funk, who is a former president of a synagogue in Bethesda, Md., is independent of the State Department’s bureaucracy, But he does not have the authority to order the changes.
Department spokeswoman Tutwiler said Baker would review the report and decide whether to act on Funk’s recommendations.
A congressional source familiar with a classified intelligence briefing given Wednesday to members of the House of Representatives said lawmakers felt that Funk did not provide “corroborating evidence” to support allegations of illegal Israeli transfers.
The source said that any unauthorized Israeli sales of U.S. technology appeared to amount to “non-tactical” U.S.-made items, such as “screws, nuts and bolts.”
Menachem Maron, a former director general of Israel’s Defense Ministry, acknowledged instances where Israel used American “off-the-equipment it designed and produced.
Those components are available at most hardware stores and electronic shops, he said.
But “when we told the Americans of such use and requested export licenses and were refused, we simply replaced the American items with our own local production,” he added.
Bruce Williams, a U.S. military attache in Israel from 1975 to 1980, said the jury is still out on the alleged Israeli violations and that “from the point of view of the professional military relationship” between the two countries, “I don’t feel that it’s going to be a long-term harmful thing. I think it can be resolved.”
Williams, a retired colonel who sits on the board of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, questioned why “if this indeed happened as alleged did the State Department choose, if they knew about it, to in effect ignore it?”
‘A CLOUD OF INNUENDO’
He said that if such violations took place as part of a “conscious decision from a policy point of view, this wouldn’t be the first time we would have allowed Israel to sell something that we wouldn’t sell ourselves.”
Williams cited the Israeli sales to Iran of Hawk and TOW missiles during the Reagan administration, in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair.
Rep. Lawrence Smith (D-Fla.), a staunchly pro-Israel lawmaker, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Israel thought they had the green light from the State Department.”
That would explain why Israel “didn’t make any attempt to cover it up when they thought they had approval from the State Department,” he said.
Smith said he is “a little hesitant” to say the inspector general’s report “is complete hogwash,” because Funk is a “very decent man” who has unveiled numerous “messes” in the internal workings of the State Department.
“But I have to question, as I think most people ought to, anything that comes out of the State Department these days with reference to criticism of Israel,” he said.
“Given the track record of this administration, you can’t be sure that all of what comes out is legitimate and accurate and isn’t for political purposes only.”
In Israel, Deputy Minister Netanyahu criticized the United States for creating “a cloud of innuendo” over Israel. That cloud “is supposed to jeopardize Israel’s credibility and the entire defense establishment’s credibility in the eyes of the American government,” he charged.
(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)