Skip To Content

Spat Over Sales of Weapons Chilling Ties Between Jerusalem and Beijing

The latest crisis between Washington and Jerusalem over an Israeli weapons sale to China is now turning into a political spat between Jerusalem and Beijing.

Harsh words were exchanged between the Pentagon and the Israeli Defense Ministry this week over the Harpy, an Israeli-built attack drone that had been sold to China, and then sent back to Israel recently for upgrading. American officials have accused Israel of violating a standing commitment to consult before making any weapons deals with China, against which Washington continues to impose an embargo. Jerusalem denies it violated the commitment, but news reports indicate that Israel will have little choice but to accept America’s demand that it not send back the drones to China. Jerusalem is now bracing for a strong reaction from Beijing that could threaten the deepening military relationship that has emerged over the last decade.

The crisis erupted barely a month after the release of the first major policy paper by the new think tank created by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which calls for a sweeping re-evaluation by the world Jewish community of its relations with the world’s most populous country, partly to avoid being caught in the middle of just such disputes between Washington and Beijing, as Jerusalem now finds itself.

According to Israeli press reports, the Bush administration claims the Israeli-Chinese Harpy deal violate an American-Israeli agreement reached after a previous crisis in 1999 to 2000, following the sale by Israel of Phalcon radar equipment to China. Israel counters that the latest deal was merely for maintenance of the unmanned vehicles.

In mid-December, Israel’s Channel 2 Television reported that Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, regarded as one of Israel’s strongest supporters in the administration, was demanding the resignation of the director general of the Israeli defense ministry, Amos Yaron, for failing to keep him properly informed about the ramifications of the sale. Hours after the initial report, the head of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, Yuval Steinitz, publicly acknowledged the dispute, saying it dated back one or two years.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said this week that he fully backed Yaron and that he had no intention of replacing him.

Israeli sources said that General John Jumper, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, recently canceled a planned visit to Israel because he was unwilling to meet with Yaron, and Israel refused to accept the intended snub.

American officials have denied that charge while restating long-held American concerns over Israel’s technology sales to China. American officials fear that advanced American defense technology contained in Israeli equipment could be used against China’s rival, Taiwan, where American soldiers are deployed.

In July 2000, Israel canceled a contract to sell China a plane equipped with its own Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control Systems after Washington objected to the sale. After a brief Israeli-Chinese crisis, Israel eventually agreed to pay China $350 million in compensation.

Yaron remains controversial in Washington for his role as the brigadier general in charge of the Beirut brigade that controlled the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps at the time of the infamous September 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians allied to Israel. He was formally censured for his role, but was promoted to major general shortly afterward. In 1986 he was sent to Washington as military attaché and was there during the so-called Lavi Affair, the first major crisis between the Pentagon and Israel’s government-owned arms industry.

The latest crisis comes just one month after the release of the first major strategy paper issued by the so-called Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank chaired by former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross. The paper urges strongly that China, as the world’s next superpower — and a major nation with no prior conceptions, positive or negative, about Judaism — be sought out by the Diaspora Jewish community for an institutionalized, free-standing relationship, independent of both American and Israeli policy interests.

The study, written by French academic Shalom Salomon Wald, notes that China appears receptive to such an initiative in part because it sees the American Jewish community as a significant player in Washington that could help China improve its standing in the United States.

The paper advocates the creation of a permanent delegation in China representing major Jewish organizations to cultivate relations at various levels of officialdom and civil society. It urges a strong push for academic and cultural cooperation to help bolster the image of Jews in a country that is largely devoid of the antisemitic tendencies of the Western and Muslim worlds.

“Jewish policy responses to Chinese opportunities and interest have been insufficient,” the paper says. “There has been a shortage of vision, information, coordination and money. It is true that Jews have had many short-term problems that were much more urgent. But it is also true that the Jewish people have lacked long-term strategic perspectives and in general have no long-term policies.”

The paper claims that acting now is important because in the years to come, China will rely increasingly on Middle Eastern oil to fuel its roaring economy, its Muslim minorities will likely assert themselves and relations with the United States could deteriorate as China becomes Washington’s main competitor.

Separately, the institute is working to create an international Jewish representative council that would be capable of coordinating such initiatives on behalf of the fractious Jewish communities of the world.

Ross, reached by phone in Israel this week, where he was meeting with government and Knesset leaders to discuss the proposed Diaspora council, declined to discuss the current crisis or any possible implications of his institute’s China proposal.

Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress/Council on World Jewry and a longtime advocate of closer ties with China, said that establishing stronger relations between Jews and China could play a role in helping prevent crises of the sort that erupted last week.

More broadly, he pointed to common Jewish and Chinese values such as family and education, and the absence of antisemitic tradition and of Chinese colonial presence in the Middle East as inducements to closer relations.

Moreover, he said China’s rising economic clout could not be ignored and that it constituted a huge potential trade market for Israel. Still, he acknowledged that Beijing’s growing demand for oil makes a rapprochement with Arab states and Iran more likely in the short term. For instance, China signed last month a major agreement to develop and import oil and gas from Iran and has expressed strong reservations about sanctioning Tehran for its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapons program.

China already has shown its increasing interest in the region by appointing a Middle East special envoy in September 2002. China also has made several symbolic gestures to Jewish groups in recent months, including hosting a reunion of World War II-era Jewish refugees who were sheltered in the northern Chinese city of Harbin, as well as making a grant to a neighboring Russian province known as the Jewish Autonomous Republic for renewal of Jewish education in the province.

“Hopefully, the similarity between the Jewish and the Chinese people will govern China’s attitude in the future,” Rosen said. “This is why it is very important to start telling our story now.”

Still, he expressed guarded support for the initiative by the Jewish policy institute, pointing out that his organization already has been laying the groundwork for several years. He cautioned that establishing a permanent, institutionalized representation in China is a difficult task in a country known for its severe government restrictions.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.