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U.S. Nixes Israel-Venezuela Arms Deal

With Israel still reeling from a prolonged dispute with the White House over military cooperation with China, the Bush administration is forcing Jerusalem to freeze a major contract to upgrade Venezuela’s American-manufactured F-16 fighter jets.

The Israeli Defense Ministry suggested America’s move in a statement last week, noting that “in accordance with agreements between the two countries about U.S.-manufactured weapons, Israel asked for Washington’s green light over the [Venezuelan] contract.”

“Contacts between [Israel and the United States] are under way,” the statement reported, without offering further details.

According to Israeli media reports, Washington is objecting to Jerusalem carrying out its $100 million contract with Venezuela because of America’s strained relations with the South American nation’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez.

The Israeli Defense Ministry did not return requests for further comments. The Pentagon did not provide specific comments on the issue beyond reiterating America’s misgivings about Venezuela’s intentions.

“Our concerns about Venezuela’s arms purchases and their potential to destabilize the region are well known,” a Defense Department spokesman said in an e-mail. “Plans to purchase large quantities of weapons are extremely troubling…. We have serious questions about how Venezuela will secure or use these armaments and the weapons they will replace.”

The latest flap comes after years of American wrangling over Jerusalem’s budding military relations with China, and it provides additional evidence of Washington’s willingness to use military arms sales as a foreign policy tool even if it means strong-arming close allies. For Israeli defense industry officials, the decision to block Israel’s deal with Venezuela is especially irksome because of Washington and Beijing’s recent rapprochement on military issues.

During a visit to China last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was critical of Beijing on several fronts. But Rumsfeld announced that both countries would increase their level of military cooperation as a way to address tensions over China’s military buildup and the threat it poses to America’s regional allies, including, first and foremost, Taiwan.

In April, the Pentagon made the unusual decision to partially suspend military cooperation with Israel because of its military links with China, eventually forcing Jerusalem to agree in a memorandum of understanding — signed this August and still to be enacted — to a comprehensive American vetting of Israeli military sales.

The American decision to block Israel’s upgrade of 22 Venezuelan F-16s comes just weeks after Chavez began to claim that American officials were planning to assassinate him and invade his country. In 2002, Chavez accused Washington of supporting a failed coup attempt against him. Since then, he has cultivated links with such American nemeses as Cuba and Iran.

Washington has denied Chavez’s allegations, while also clearly expressing its irritation with the Venezuelan president’s firebrand rhetoric and foreign policy moves.

Calls for comments from Venezuelan officials were not returned.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is planning a visit to Washington next month. The continuing friction over Israeli military exports was expected to figure prominently in Mofaz’s talks with American officials.

Israel is likely to end up paying compensation to Venezuela if the contract is canceled. In 2000, Israel paid China $350 million after Washington pressured Jerusalem into breaking an agreement to supply Beijing Phalcon airplanes with radars that have Airborne Warning and Control Systems.

Senior officials within Israel’s military industries reportedly expressed frustration with the latest development, accusing Washington of bringing pressure to bear for commercial rather than national security reasons.

Yediot Aharonot quoted a defense industry source accusing the Bush administration of deliberately blocking the deal with Venezuela in order to favor American companies.

It appears that Israel is not the only ally to the United States entangled in a dispute with Washington over Venezuela’s military ambitions. Last week, the Spanish daily ABC reported that Washington was considering blocking Madrid’s airplane sale to Venezuela on the grounds that the jetliners use American technology.

Spain intended to sell to Venezuela a dozen C-295 transport planes equipped with American-made sensors and radar, thus requiring American approval. ABC reported that the Bush administration had indicated its opposition to the $600 million contract, adding that one of Spain’s options would be to use Israeli technology to upgrade the planes. However, given Washington’s stance on the F-16s, it is unlikely that Israel would agree to such a deal. Gustavo Marquez, Venezuelan Integration and Foreign Trade minister, told Venezuelan state television that the American attitude over the Spanish contract was “unacceptable.”

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