Israeli officials are becoming more and more irritated –– despite repeated concessions and a formal agreement between Washington and Jerusalem –– by their inability to end their dispute with the Bush administration over Israeli arms sales to China, a top Israeli political figure told the Forward this week.
“There was a series of mistakes, but our officials did not cheat and some people took it out of proportion,” said Labor Party lawmaker Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister who now chairs a key Knesset defense subcommittee. “It’s enough.”
Sneh called the dispute “a tragedy” and “totally unnecessary.”
Press accounts have described the disagreement as arising from American anger over Israel’s sale and maintenance of an attack drone aircraft, the Harpy, prompting Washington to suspend cooperation on some military programs. But sources on both sides said that the dispute goes beyond the Harpy and touches on the larger question of Israeli military ties with China.
“We were concerned globally about China’s military buildup and advanced arms sales to China,” former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith said in his first public comments on the issue since stepping down this summer. “We worked on this with the European Union, with Russia and with Israel. We had a problem with Israel, we talked about it seriously and we found a way to move ahead.”
On August 12, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his Israeli counterpart Shaul Mofaz signed a classified memorandum of understanding laying out a new mechanism governing sensitive exports in the area of technology security.
Still, the Pentagon has refused to resume full cooperation until Israel implements the agreement.
A Pentagon spokesman said that the timetable for the restoration of full military cooperation “lies with the Israeli government.”
Privately, Israeli officials admit that Jerusalem failed to grasp the level of concern in the Pentagon in recent years over China’s growing military prowess and the change it had prompted in the level of American scrutiny over arms sales.
The Bush administration mounted serious pressure on the European Union last winter not to lift its embargo on arms sales to China, adopted in the wake of Beijing’s deadly human-rights crackdown in 1989. In reply, Europeans reportedly pointed to Israel’s booming arms sales to China and were reassured by American officials that there would be no favoritism.
In April, the Pentagon took the unusual step of suspending some information sharing with Israel on a new fighter-jet until American concerns are allayed over Israeli military technology transfers to China.
American officials have accused Israel of failing to provide timely and complete information on the military items that it exports to China, as required by American laws governing American-Israeli military cooperation.
Israel has taken numerous steps in recent months to meet objections of the United States, including public apologies, removal of several senior defense officials and months-long negotiatiions over the America-Israel memorandum of understanding on military technology transfers, signed in August.
But American officials say they are still waiting for Israel to take certain steps before they resume a full-fledged military cooperation. Among these steps is the enactment of new legislation on the licensing and monitoring of sensitive technology exports.
Israeli officials have grown increasingly impatient with what they perceive as Washington’s exacting demands. In the latest public display of Israeli pique, Sneh, a former general who is briefed on defense issues regularly, expressed Israel’s annoyance sharply during a briefing in New York for the Israel Policy Forum.
Sneh said that the substantive differences had been solved, and he suggested that the continuing dispute was being driven by other reasons. He declined to be more specific about what such motives could be and which American officials were to blame.
Numerous Israeli press accounts have portrayed the dispute as stemming partly from a personal feud between Feith, who was regarded as one of Israel’s strongest supporters in the Pentagon, and the director-general of Israel’s Defense Ministry, Amos Yaron. According to published accounts, Feith believed that Yaron had not been fully honest in his reporting of Israeli transactions with China.
Yaron retired last month.
Feith told the Forward that the dispute was based not on personalities but on policy. He declined to comment specifically on allegations that he had asked for Yaron to be removed.
Several observers suggested that Israel had been slow to grasp the stiffening of America’s stance toward China, partly because of the more lenient American behavior in the past.
Derek Mitchell, who was director of China affairs at the Pentagon toward the end of the Clinton administration, said that on several occasions, Israeli re-export to China of equipment built with American technology had drawn some concern but resulted in little action. The major exception was the planned sale of the Phalcon airborne radar system, which Washington forced Jerusalem to cancel in 2000.
“There was a sense that Israel was providing some military technology to China that was not appropriate,” said Mitchell, now a senior fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. has now gotten much more sensitive on China, not only with Israel but with the Europeans and the Russians.”
Both American and Israeli officials close to the issue now say that the dispute had help clarify some gray areas and that the memorandum of understanding, when implemented, would help chart a clear path for the future.