US Presses Israel to Cancel Chinese Projects

Middle East News Line - December 23, 2004


-- The Bush administration has launched a drive to pressure Israel to cancel or abandon a series of military projects in China.

Israeli and U.S. officials said the Defense Department, supported by the White House, has relayed a series of demands meant to significantly reduce Israeli military projects in China. The Pentagon effort also sought to halt Israeli negotiations with China on new systems for Beijing.

"For years, the administration and Congress have been looking for a solid Israeli link with Chinese arms programs," a U.S. official said. "The administration has found it and now wants to roll back Israeli defense relations with China."

The Pentagon campaign has focused on the cancellation of Israel's Harpy armed unmanned aerial vehicle program as well as the severing of negotiations for the Heron UAV for China. Officials said the Pentagon has demanded that unidentified command and control projects for China also be terminated.

The officials said the U.S. demand would, in effect, terminate Israel's defense relations with Beijing. They said the Pentagon effort was meant to force China to switch suppliers after Beijing would conclude that Israel could no longer honor military or security contracts.

"The effort is not only about Israel," another official said. "The pressure that we bring on Israel will deter the European Union from becoming military suppliers of China."

On Dec. 17, the White House urged Israel and the European Union to take "a responsible approach" regarding the sale of defense equipment and technology to China. A White House statement said the United States has approached both Israel and the EU out of concern that either would sell defense equipment to China.

"We have long expressed our concerns about the sale of defense equipment and technology to China," the White House said. "We continue to raise those concerns with our friends and allies and others, and look for them to take a responsible approach."

Officials said China has sent an unspecified number of Harpy UAVs to Israel for overhaul or upgrade. They said the Pentagon has demanded that Israel's Defense Ministry refuse to return the Harpy platforms.

The Pentagon demand would comprise a violation of Israel's decade-old contract with Beijing, the officials said. But they said the administration could not allow China to deploy the Harpy UAVs for any attack on Taiwan or nearby U.S. forces.

The United States has also demanded that Israel Aircraft Industries terminate contacts with China for the proposed sale of the Heron. The Heron has been deemed a strategic long-range UAV and officials said the platform was demonstrated for China over the last year.

Officials said IAI also briefed Chinese military commanders and defense officials in Beijing on the Heron. IAI, Israel's largest defense contractor, also manufactures the Harpy as well as the Phalon airborne early-warning aircraft.

In 2000, the United States pressured Israel to suspend the sale of at least one Phalcon AEW system to China. Four years later, IAI sold three Phalcon systems to India in a $1.1 billion deal.

The Pentagon demands on Israel appear to stem from recommendations issued by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a panel mandated by Congress. In its 2004 report, the commission called on the United States to "restrict foreign defense contractors who sell sensitive military-use technology or weapons systems to China from participating in U.S. defense-related cooperative research, development, and production programs." The United States has been one of IAI's leading markets.

The commission also recommended that Congress request the Pentagon to provide a comprehensive annual report to Congress on foreign military sales to China, "particularly from Russia and Israel." The EU was not cited.

Israeli officials said the Defense Ministry has not banned local defense contractors from marketing non-lethal systems and platforms in China. In a policy that has sparked opposition within the government, the Defense Ministry has aimed to seek U.S. approval for Chinese defense deals only after a commitment by Beijing to order the Israeli equipment.

"These sales [to China] have not only hurt our relations with the United States, but they have hurt defense relations with other Asian nations, particularly India and Japan," an Israeli defense source said. "After all, India has also purchased the Heron." Israeli and U.S. officials agreed that Israel's continued defense relations with China has angered both senior Pentagon officials as well key members of the House of Representatives. They said many of these Americans have lost their trust in Israeli defense officials.

"Some of these Pentagon officials are extremely pro-Israel," an official said. "Now, they can't even look at some of the people in the [Israeli] Defense Ministry who treat the Americans as idiots."

Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli consul-general with close ties to the Bush administration, said Jerusalem and Washington must draft a long-term accord that would guide Israeli military exports. Ettinger said such an arrangement would be based on a guaranteed level of U.S. military aid to and defense research and development projects with Israel.

"The key would be to ensure mutual national interests, maintaining transparency and ensuring Israel's qualitative edge," Ettinger said.

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