Israel's deal with China irks US

Yesterday, Israel pledged to honor its sale of early-warning systems to China, despite US unease.

Following in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims before him, Jiang Zemin, the leader of communist China, visited religious shrines yesterday in the Holy Land.

But his overall mission has run into controversy.

During President Zemin's momentous visit, Israel has found itself in a diplomatic quandary of courting a new customer without displeasing its chief patron, the United States.

At the heart of the tangle is the US opposition to Israel's contract to sell a $250-million early warning plane to China, and the possible sale of several more radar-equipped planes that will elevate China's surveillance capabilities over Taiwan, a close US ally.

In the global arms supermarket, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's dilemma over who to please first raises questions as to what extent buyers are beholden to their suppliers. Israeli officials complain that despite their objections, the US sold AWACS to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.

"In this market of the defense industries of the world, in this competition, there are no friends," Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said in an radio interview last week. "Everyone is competing without mercy against everyone."

Since then, Mr. Sneh and other Israeli officials have softened that line, issuing reminders that they would never act against the interests of the US. "We consider very sincerely and seriously the concerns which we hear now from our friends," Sneh said yesterday.

Mr. Barak and other members of his Cabinet argue that Israel cannot retract from the contract they have already signed with China, with whom Israel has had diplomatic ties only since 1992.

This, and the Israeli plans to broaden its sale of military equipment to India, comes at a sensitive time in US-Israel relations. It is a period in which Israel has been hoping for more American assistance to ease the financial burdens associated with any potential withdrawal from the Golan Heights in the event of an accord with Syria.

Israeli officials say that the deal is important for them on many levels. The sale, they say, could give them leverage with the Chinese, particularly in persuading them not to sell arms to countries that pose a threat to the Jewish state, such as Iran, Iraq, and Syria. But the effectiveness of sales as diplomacy is called into question by the very fact that Israel - the largest recipient of US economic and military aid - wants to assert its independence as both a purchaser and provider in the global arms market.

A Pentagon spokesman says that just as the US has had limited success in its efforts to wield influence through its own sales to China, it seems questionable that Israel could fare better.

"A lot of this technology has a wonderful way of finding its way back to the Middle East," he said. "The US has tried to influence China with varying degrees of success, and yet China has regularly shipped stuff to Iran."

At issue is not just the one sale, but the overall development of military ties between China and Israel. Although Barak offered to limit the sale to just one plane in a compromise gesture, US officials dismissed it as pointless. The Chinese, they say, could easily copy the design. Pentagon officials say that China's new J-10 jet fighter is modeled on an Israeli design that was developed with US assistance.

"We have an interest in a safe, secure region, and we're concerned that this could come back and haunt us," the Pentagon spokesman says.

Dread is hardly the dynamic Barak has been cultivating with Washington since his election last May. Though enjoying exceptionally good relations with the US, Barak is also under pressure from Israel's military and flagging defense industry not to cancel the sale. In such circles, proponents say that Israel's pool of potential clients is limited by the number of buyers who are unfriendly or hostile to Israel, leaving relatively neutral customers like China too attractive to pass up. Otherwise, they argue, other US allies like Britain and France will rush to meet the demand.

In another, somewhat nationalist camp of advocates are those who think that a sovereign Israel must not have its foreign policy prescribed from Washington. And the knowledge that Barak's right-wing opposition would paint him as a weak premier if he does accede to American interests weighs heavily in the prime minister's office, especially at a stage when Barak's self-set deadlines for agreements with the Palestinians, and a withdrawal from Lebanon, have begun to make him look overconfident about peace marching to his own metronome.

Moreover, Israelis close to the issue say that the US never clearly expressed the extent of its opposition to the sale, which has been four years in the making. Zev Sufott, who was Israel's first ambassador to China in 1992, says that a politically charged clamor in Congress has pushed a sale that should have passed quietly onto the front pages. Some members of Congress have threatened to withhold aid to Israel if the sale goes ahead.

"The Americans hemmed and hawed, but never said no," says Mr. Sufott, who assisted in initiating the sale in its early stages. "All of a sudden, it became too public and Congress started making a lot of noise, basically to show how patriotic they are and to make problems for the Administration." In response, a Pentagon official said that the US has made clear its opposition since the beginning.

If pressed further, Suffot says, Israel will probably acquiesce to US calls to cancel the contract. According to reports in Israel's leading newspaper Ha'aretz, senior officials in Israel's foreign ministry as well as leaders of the American Jewish community have been urging Barak not to jeopardize the relations with the US.

"Israel's priority international interest is its relationship with the U.S. and not China, so if the pressure is powerful and strong enough, I think we'll have to give up on this," says Sufott, who is now retired. "If the [Clinton] Administration feels it has to put its foot down, we'll have to fold, I guess."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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