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Israel, China, and Weapons Sales By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
The National Interest | Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Israel-US Bilateral Relationship Needs to be Mended

Israel is a strong U.S. ally in the war against terror, a long-time friend, and a confidant on issues pertaining to Middle East peace and security. That unique relationship however, has been recently challenged by Israel's attempted to sell sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or Harpy Killer drones to China. This has led some analysts to speculate that the depth and strength of the Israel-US bilateral relationship is now in question -- with a reformulation almost inevitable.

Recent comments by Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, highlighted the tension between the two countries, "There is a crisis. It has been going on for about a year, and to my great regret, even Sharon’s [Israel’s Prime Minister] visit to Washington didn’t resolve this crisis."

For some in the Bush Administration and the Pentagon, the attempted sale of sophisticated technology by Israel is further evidence that closer supervision of arms sales to foreign allies is long overdue and necessary. "We have our concerns about the sale and transfer of defense equipment and technology to China known to Israel," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters in June.

Primary US concerns surround the capability of Harpy Killer drones to destroy radar stations and anti-aircraft batteries similar to those used by Taiwan to defend against Chinese missiles and aircraft. Complicating the proposed sale, Israel claimed the drones were merely "refurbished," but initial US intelligence reports claim that new technology was incorporated in the drones.

Adding to US frustration was the recent indictment and arrest of Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin, who worked on the Pentagon’s Iran desk, for allegedly supplying classified national defense information to a pro-Israel lobby group. Moreover, Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan’s December visit to Israel, recognized as the most substantial visit by a Chinese official to Israel in several years, has raised concerns in Washington of a closer Sino-Israel bilateral relationship.

But beyond concerns related to the re-transfer of sophisticated technology, increased spying and visits by high-level Chinese officials, the attempted drone sale highlights concerns that a more independent Israel is determined to make its own mark on the world– questioning US authority more frequently in order to establish its own autonomous relations with other countries.

This desire for a more distant relationship was verified in June when U.S. officials requested that Israel remove four senior defense officials over the attempted sale including Amos Yaron, director-general of the Defense Ministry and Yehiei Horev, head of the security branch at the ministry. On his way from Paris en route to Brussels, Yuval Steinitz called the demand "illegitimate" and "humiliating." In the past, this type of comment from a top Israeli official would have elicited a stern rebuke from Tel Aviv and a swift retraction -- not so today.

History of Conflict over Arms Sales

Although mutually supportive in many ways, the US-Israel bilateral relationship has been marked by intense, periodic controversies over violations of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the Foreign Assistance Act, as noted by U.S. officials. The most troubling aspect of these violations has been the apparent intermingling of protected US technology with Israeli exports to foreign countries such as China and India.

In the mid-1980’s, the U.S. State Department Inspector General raised concerns regarding Israel’s re-transfer of U.S. military hardware and technology without permission. The U.S. Attorney Generals Office cited, "a systematic and growing pattern of unauthorized transfers by the recipient [Israel] dating back to about 1983."

In 1999, the U.S. government pressured Israel to cancel a proposed sale of radar equipment to China by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI). If delivered, the radar equipment would have allowed the China to view up to 60 aerial targets in all directions over a radius of 250 miles. A subsequent story by the Washington Post in April 2000 noted that U.S. officials were disturbed by the fact that the system was closely related to the US AWACS or airborne warning and control system. Israel was eventually forced to pay Beijing $350 million in compensation for the failed arms deal.

In response to concerns regarding the sale of advanced technologies, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Israel’s defense industry in early 2005, cutting off financial and technical assistance for a number of weapons systems, including the F-35 aircraft, the Arrow 2 anti-ballistic missile, and the Tactical High Energy Laser Project. Moreover, deliveries of night-vision equipment to Israel were indefinitely suspended.

Evolving Israeli Independence

Israel’s leadership is genuinely disturbed by what it perceives as a Washington double standard, whereby the U.S. imposes sanctions on Israel for arms sales to China, but does very little to stop other countries such as France, Germany and Russia from selling arms and nuclear materials to countries like Iran.

Making matters worse, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported in June that the US asked the Israeli government to seek its approval on any arms sales to India and Singapore. This, in reaction to Israel’s failed deal with China.

Sensing that his country’s bargaining position was evaporating, Yuval Steinitz immediately dismissed the demand saying Israel should take into consideration US sensitivities on arms sales to China, but not India and Singapore, "The attempt by the US to impose supervision of Israeli exports to India and Singapore is designed to bolster the competitiveness of US companies against Israeli companies. Israeli Export and International Cooperation Institute chairman and Manufacturers Association president Shraga Brosh concurred, "Israel cannot agree to this," he stated.

But what does Israel hope to gain by seeking greater flexibility on issues related to arms sales?

Surely, proving one’s independence is admirable – a characteristic of a confident and mature country. But in the current arms case, Israeli independence could mean isolation from its staunchest ally – the US In addition, China is a known weapons proliferators, securing advanced technology and then re-selling it on the open market. Who can say with certainty that China would not sell the Harpy Killer drones to an anti-Israel state such as Syria or Iran? This is something Israel must consider.


Hope remains high that that an agreeable solution to the current stalemate between Israel and the US will soon be reached, but it will take work by both sides. In a positive first step toward reconciliation, Israel has pledged to report to the US military and dual use sales to China.

An agreement termed the "Declaration of Understanding on Technology Exports" will likely be signed next month by both countries. The proposed agreement will declare that the US and Israel are strategic partners who will consider each other’s concerns about the transfer of military technology to third countries. The agreement will also stipulate that the US cannot ban arms sales on commercial grounds. The final agreement is expected to be signed by Israel Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz during a trip to Washington next month.

Israel and the US must quickly move beyond this crisis- their bilateral relationship is much too important. Yuval Steinitz indicated that it was important for a mechanism to be created that would ensure that both the US and Israel give consideration to each others concerns, "With China, Israel must continue to cooperate, but it must also continue to show sensitivity to the fears and needs of the Americans."

Unfounded allegations by some in the media that the Bush administration is purposely trying to erode the strategic alliance between Israel and the US by stopping the sale of drones to China are misguided and ill-timed. Critics of US policy must realize that the current arms debate lies well beyond the boarders of the Middle East and is global in nature.

A well-armed and technologically advanced China has the potential to become a much greater threat to Middle East peace and stability than Egypt or Syria. In addition, Israel must recognize that many in Washington view the attempted drone sale as a direct assault on the existing arms embargo against China that the US has worked so diligently to enforce, maintain and strengthen.

At the same time, requests by the Israeli government calling for the US to consider its own security interests before making arms sales to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of which have harbored hostile intentions toward the Jewish state, are entirely legitimate and should be taken seriously by Washington.

In June, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and noted his regret that the drone sales could have damaged the interests of the US With so much at stake, both Israel and the US must make certain that disagreements become less confrontational in the future.

Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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