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Israel-u.s. Dispute on Arms Sale to China Threatens to Snowball

June 9, 2005
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Israel’s close defense ties to the United States could be harmed by a little-noticed provision, buried in a defense appropriations bill passed overwhelmingly last month by the U.S. House of Representatives, that penalizes nations that sell arms to China. Pro-Israel and Israeli officials insist that the provision, which bans procurement for five years of defense items from any country that sells arms to China, targets European nations courting Asia’s pre-eminent military power.

“Israel should not be a target of that legislation,” said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

But that doesn’t mean Israel shouldn’t be concerned, given the bill’s broad language and Israel’s status as the No. 2 seller of arms to China after Russia, according to a 2004 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review.

A ban could cripple Israel’s defense industry, which deals extensively with U.S. interests and which is a mainstay of Israel’s economy.

Indeed, some say U.S. pressure over Israeli arms sales — such as to India, another source of contention — is motivated less by security concerns and more by fear that Israel might take arms business away from U.S. firms.

“It’s more about competitiveness and less to do with China,” Neumann said of the U.S. pressure on Israel.

Israel already is paying a price for its relationship with China: In April, it was frozen out of access to information about U.S. plans for its Joint Strike Fighter, a state-of-the-art combat aircraft due for production by 2012.

In a series of high-level meetings between the countries’ defense establishments in recent months, Israeli officials have scrambled to assuage recent U.S. anger at Israeli deals with China.

“There’s an ongoing dialogue taking place right now to resolve whatever outstanding issues exist, which we hope will be resolved very soon,” said an Israeli spokesman who did not want to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the dialogue.

The spokesman pointed to a defense relationship that is thriving in many areas, especially in the manufacture of the Arrow anti-missile missile.

Boeing and Israel Aircraft Industries toasted the Arrow’s success this week at a cocktail party on Capitol Hill, an event attended by members of Congress who two weeks earlier had approved the controversial provision.

Pro-Israel lobbyists have a consistent track record of getting Congress to double administration funding requests for the Arrow project, the centerpiece of U.S.-Israel defense cooperation.

That would seem to underscore the claim that the House was aiming for Europe when it referred the bill to the Senate on May 25 in a 390-39 vote. Still, Israel would be unwise to ignore the consequences of continuing to deal with China, experts said.

“Israel’s policy of arms sales to China is disgraceful. This has always been a situation where Israel acts like France,” said Danielle Pletka, a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and for 10 years a senior staffer for Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“We all understand their motivation: A homegrown defense industry is tough to finance, staying on the cutting edge is hard to pay for. But by the same token we could arm Syria and Lebanon or Iran,” she said.

In fact, Israel long has complained about U.S. arms sales in the Arab world, but its concerns generally are overruled.

Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, echoed Pletka’s remarks on Israel’s relationship with China.

“Israel’s actions are contributing to a reduction in U.S. security, and if that were ever widely perceived it would so radically change the Israel-U.S. relationship,” O’Hanlon said.

Israelis and Europeans tend to believe that U.S.-China tensions are shadow play, O’Hanlon said, but in fact the prospect of a confrontation over the Taiwan Strait is very real.

“There’s no partisan divide or intellectual divide on this question on this side of the pond,” O’Hanlon said.

The unanimity of anger has allowed the Pentagon in recent months to take punitive steps, including freezing Israel out of the Joint Strike Fighter project.

“There are some types of technology and information we’re not comfortable sharing, while some issues can be worked out,” Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said in April.

Other measures include making Maj. Gen. Amos Yaron, the executive director of Israel’s Defense Ministry who is seen as driving Israel’s China sales, persona non grata.

Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defense minister, flew to Washington in March to try to put out fires. He didn’t get far: Instead of helping Yaron, he made Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger, a former air force commander, his point man with the Pentagon.

A central issue of contention was Israel’s agreement to upgrade Harpy attack drones that it sold to China in the mid-1990s. The unmanned aircraft “detects, attacks and destroys enemy radar emitters, hitting them with high hit accuracy,” the IAI boasts on its Web site.

What the site does not say is that China tested the weapons last year in the Taiwan Strait, the likeliest venue for a U.S.-China confrontation should the Chinese decide to take action against Taiwan, an island that Beijing sees as a renegade province.

The prospect of Israeli technology resulting in American deaths should rattle Israel, experts say, but it doesn’t. Israel, they say, still hews to the coziness of its relationship with the Pentagon during the Cold War, when the United States encouraged Israel to sell arms to China as a means of isolating the Soviet Union.

“It’s rarely recognized in Israel that the disappearance of the ‘Evil Empire’ also meant Israel losing some of its relative importance to the U.S.,” P.R. Kumaraswamy, an Israel expert at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, wrote last month in the Power and Interest News Report. “This results in Israel not appreciating the new American concerns vis-a-vis China and its potential threats to American interests in the Pacific and elsewhere.”

O’Hanlon said Israel needs to appreciate that the Israeli and U.S. positions have reversed in recent years: Israel is more secure because of its vast conventional and non-conventional superiority in its region, while the United States, by contrast, feels increasingly insecure since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“The United States is increasingly at risk, even as Israel is at lesser risk,” O’Hanlon said.

Israel and the United States came to an agreement on the Harpy last month, according to various reports. Israel would repair but not upgrade the weapons; in exchange, the United States would drop its demands that Israel “confiscate” the weapons that China has owned since the mid-1990s.

That did not end the matter and the bans are still on, though Israeli officials have suggested they could be resolved by year’s end.

Still, the recurrence of mid-1990s disputes over Israeli efforts to sell combat aircraft technology to China, and in the late 1990s over a deal on an advanced airborne radar detection system, underscore basic philosophical differences.

Many top officials in Israel’s military industry dream of extricating Israel from its reliance on the United States — one that, despite $2.7 billion a year in U.S. assistance, increasingly is seen as crippling Israel’s efforts to become a leader in the industry.

To that end, they argue that they are careful to sell only Israeli technology to the Chinese.

Americans dismiss those arguments as disingenuous: The technology may now be Israeli, but it arises out of a cooperative relationship with the United States.

Neumann of JINSA suggested that Israel understands the seriousness of U.S. concerns.

“Israel has a cooperative relationship with the United States that it values. It is its pre-eminent relationship,” he said. “When you have such a close relationship, certain concessions and compromises are made.”

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