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Will U.S. Get Veto Power over Israeli Arms Transfers?

May 31, 2000
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A Clinton administration official is confirming what some analysts are calling unprecedented — discussion of a joint U.S.- Israeli commission to supervise Israeli arms deals and technology transfers.

The idea is one of the latest being considered by senior Israeli and U.S. officials in the wake of American objections to the planned Israeli sale of advanced radar systems to China.

U.S. officials have publicly criticized the planned sale, calling it “counterproductive,” given the high tensions between China and Taiwan.

U.S. officials, who have pressed Prime Minister Ehud Barak on the issue, believe the system, which would enhance the capabilities of the Chinese air force, could threaten U.S. forces in the Taiwan Strait.

Israeli officials, mostly silent on the issue because of its extreme sensitivity, have said they hope to find a compromise that would appease its closest ally while not reneging on a lucrative $250 million contract with China.

Details surrounding the commission remain unclear, but the concept, first reported in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, would apparently involve a joint committee to supervise Israeli arms deals and technology transfers to ensure they do not contain American components or technology, and to ensure that Israel does not sell arms to countries that would raise red flags for U.S. national security interests.

There is already a joint commission addressing the sale of the PHALCON early warning system specifically. But in general, American involvement in Israeli military sales remains informal.

“It seems unprecedented,” Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank, said of the proposed joint commission.

“From Israel’s point of view, it can’t be good.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington stressed that Israel is not passing and would not pass American technology to China, which would violate Israeli-U.S. agreements, and that Israel continues to take the U.S. concerns extremely seriously.

Some analysts sought to downplay the ramifications of a new institutionalized mechanism to monitor Israeli technology transfers. They said they doubted the commission would have real supervisory roles for American officials.

“I’m not sure Israel would agree to have deals subject to a U.S. veto,” said an official with a pro-Israel organization, who asked not to be identified.

Meanwhile, Congress remains unhappy with the planned sale and questions surround what effect, if any, the sale would have on the annual foreign aid package to Israel.

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 foreign aid to Israel if it goes ahead with the sale to China.

Those close to the issue do not believe Israel will stop the first part of the deal, which calls for delivery of one plane equipped with the PHALCON system by 2001. Future sales could be canceled in an Israeli show of compromise to the American position.

Meanwhile, the mood over the issue in Washington remains somber.

The damage done is “not irreparable and there is no fundamental breach in the relationship” between the United States and Israel as a result of the PHALCON sale, said the administration official who confirmed the discussions.

“But it does hurt the degree of trust.”

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