WASHINGTON, June 13 (JTA) The Clinton administration is pressuring members of Congress to ensure that U.S. aid to Israel is not jeopardized by Israel’s plans to sell military technology to China.
U.S. Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, has said he would block the cost of the sale $250 million in military aid to Israel if it goes ahead with the sale to China.
The administration’s effort to block the linkage and reach a deal with Callahan comes despite its own public opposition to the sale to China, which it says could endanger U.S. interests in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke with Callahan on Monday and appears to have come close to a deal to stop the proposed cut, according to an official.
Albright also publicly reiterated the administration position.
“I want to make clear that although the United States has real concerns about the proposed Israeli sale of Phalcon aircraft to China and we are discussing the matter with the Israeli government, we do not believe that linking this issue to our assistance to Israel is the appropriate way to proceed, and we will oppose any effort on Capitol Hill to do so,” she said at a State Department briefing Monday.
Albright’s statement came as Callahan’s committee was preparing to debate the foreign operations bill, which includes $1.92 billion in military and $960 million in economic aid to Israel, on Wednesday.
The official said Callahan had agreed not to push for the decrease in Israel’s aid if Democrats on the subcommittee agreed not to push for early disbursal of the entire aid package to Israel.
Early disbursement, an almost automatic practice in past years, allows Israel to receive its aid at the beginning of the fiscal year, giving it a financial advantage.
It is not clear why Callahan, who has expressed concern about the China deal based on national security interests, would be satisfied by removing Israel’s early disbursal.
Callahan had said he would not block the aid if Defense Secretary William Cohen could assure Congress that the Phalcon sale to China would not endanger American security. Cohen spoke with Callahan last week and asked him not to link the military aid to the Phalcon sale, according to officials.
Callahan’s office could not confirm the deal, and last- minute maneuvering appeared likely to continue up until the subcommittee meeting.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is working hard to stop the Callahan proposal and has been lobbying Callahan as well as others members of Congress and the administration, calls the issue a high priority.
“We are opposed to linking Israel’s aid under any circumstances because once it starts it never stops,” said AIPAC spokesman Kenneth Bricker.
According to Jo Bonner, Callahan’s chief of staff, there are “a number” of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are concerned about the Phalcon sale.
The decrease in aid would not be meant as a punishment to Israel, Bonner said, but would be intended to send a message that the sale is “not a wise move.”
But sources say Callahan’s move to block aid even if it came at a later stage of the legislative process is unlikely to survive the legislative process.
“It’s not a question of whether” the language will come out, “but when,” the official said.
The Senate has already passed its form of the bill, which includes the full aid package to Israel with no conditional language and no cuts.
The Phalcon sale has spurred many debates regarding the usually tranquil and mutually supportive U.S.-Israel relationship. Both sides have acknowledged increased tensions.
Recently, a joint committee to supervise Israeli arms deals and technology transfers was discussed.
Such a committee, which would mark an unprecedented step toward the U.S. acting in a supervisory rather than advisory role, would ensure that deals do not contain American components or technology, and that Israel does not sell arms to countries that would raise red flags for U.S. national security interests.
Israeli officials have repeatedly said they wish to honor their Phalcon contract with China, though they acknowledge the U.S. concerns.
For both political and economic reasons, Israel is seeking to enhance relations with China, which were established in 1992.
Israel sees China as an important strategic player in the international arena and an important market not only for arms, but other goods as well.