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News Analysis: Israeli Arms Sale to China Sparks Harsh Words, but Uncertain Impact

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U.S. opposition to Israel’s sale of advanced radar systems to China is clear, but the effect of this bump in the usually smooth relations between the United States and Israel remains to be seen.

Some analysts believe the arms sales would make it difficult to maintain support for Israel in Congress, where there are strong views about China’s policies on Taiwan, trade and human rights.

Others say that those who do not like Israel will attempt to use this incident to damage U.S.-Israel relations.

“Israel underestimated how much the U.S. would care about this,” said David Schenker, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

During a visit to Israel on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen made very clear how much the United States cares about Israel’s plans to sell conventional and high technology weapons to China.

Calling the move “counterproductive,” Cohen said at a news conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at his side: “The United States does not support the sale of this type of technology to China because of the potential of changing the balance in that region, with the tensions running high as they are between China and Taiwan.”

Barak said he would take the U.S. concerns into account, but Israel still intends to proceed with the deal.

“We are aware of the sensitivity in the United States with regard to China,” Barak said.

But noting the economic importance of the deal, he said, “We are, of course, aware of our commitments in the contracts that we signed.”

Both the concerns of the administration and members of Congress are being taken “extremely seriously” in Israel, says Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

He stressed that Israel is not passing American technology to China, which would violate Israeli-U.S. agreements.

Asked about the U.S. reaction to the deal, Regev said, “Even the closest of allies don’t have identical positions on every issue.”

Indeed, Israel is seeking to enhance relations with China, which were established in 1997, for both political and economic reasons. Israel sees China as an important market not only for arms, but other goods as well.

In fact China’s president, Jiang Zemin is scheduled to make an official visit to the Jewish state next week.

Some see the hype about the deal as hypocritical. The arms sale, for a reported $230 million, was announced in November, and the United States has been aware of the contract for years, sources say.

Attempts to sell — or actual sales of — very similar technology to China were made by NATO allies, such as Britain, France, and Italy, according to an official with a pro-Israel group.

In addition various American companies sell dual-use high technology items like supercomputers to Beijing, and the United States is actively seeking to restore its own military ties with China, the official said.

Still the issue remains sensitive.

Israel’s expanding military relationship with China could hurt Israeli-U.S. relations, especially as Israel is seeking to negotiate a defense treaty with the United States, a House staffer said.

The staffer, who asked not to be identified, also said that a result of this deal, some members of Congress may question Israel’s trustworthiness as Israel seeks advanced technologies from the United States.

“Many senior members of the national security committees will not consider these requests favorably,” the staffer said.

Whether or not there will be an effect on actual foreign aid to Israel is not yet clear, since the process to secure foreign aid for next year has not begun.

State Department spokesman James Rubin said Monday that as far as he knew, there are no plans for the United States to cut Israel’s foreign aid or to link it to an Israeli request for an estimated $17 billion military aid package that would accompany any possible peace deal with Syria.

“On the other hand, it’s fair to say that if Israel were not to respond to our concerns,” Rubin said, “it would have some effect.

“Precisely what, I’m not prepared to speculate,” Rubin said.

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