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Israel secretly sells American nuclear weapons to China



*** Israel is secretly selling nuclear technology to America's enemies in breach of a long-established agreement. The joke is, these are American weapons paid for by American tax-payers who generously subsidise Israel, going to a rising Communist superpower. ***

BANGALORE - Israel's relationship with its closest ally, the United States, seems to have hit a rough patch, with Washington apparently upset with Israel's clandestine dealings with China. The spat is not new, however. It has its roots in a decade-old issue. Old suspicions have returned. It is an explosion into the public domain of a row that has been going on for a few years.

The quarrel is over Israel's alleged concealing from Washington of an upgrade of a major weapons system it sold to China more than a decade ago. The United States claims that by upgrading the system, Israel violated its commitment not to transfer US technology to China without Washington's permission. Israel, however, insists that the upgrade was really just routine maintenance of a system that had originally been sold to China with US approval.

What appears to have propelled this simmering tension into the open is a clash of personalities. According to reports in the media, US Under Secretary of Defense Doug Feith believes that Israeli Defense Ministry director general Amos Yaron misled him on the arms sale to China. On Wednesday, Israeli media reported that Feith had demanded Yaron's resignation (the Pentagon has subsequently denied this).

This clash of personalities is a minor matter and can be sorted out. That is not the case with the underlying issue of concern to the US - Sino-Israel military cooperation.

Israel is China's second-largest arms supplier (the first being Russia). Although diplomatic relations between Israel and China were established only in 1992, military ties go back to the early 1980s. Until formal diplomatic ties were established, the military relationship was covert. Israel sold about US$4 billion worth of arms to China during the covert courtship. In the 1990s, the Sino-Israel military relationship grew rapidly. In fact, arms sales contributed to the strengthening of diplomatic engagement.

The military relationship hit a trough in 2000, however, when Israel came under pressure from the US to scrap a $250 million deal to sell China the Phalcon, an airborne radar system equipped with advanced Israeli-made aeronautics on board a Russian-made plane. Washington's argument was that providing Beijing access to the technology would upset the military balance between China and Taiwan and threaten US interests in the region. When the US Congress threatened to cut the $2.8 billion it gives Israel annually if the deal went ahead, Israel buckled and scrapped it.

For years, the US government has expressed concerns over Israel illegally transferring technology to China. During the Gulf War, the US gave Israel Patriot missiles as protection against Iraqi Scud missiles. In 1992, a US intelligence report revealed that soon after the end of the Gulf War, Israel had sold Patriot anti-missile data to China. Israel denied the intelligence report.

Washington has also alleged on several occasions that Israel violated agreements by exporting restricted US technology it buys with yearly US subsidies. This was the case with the largely US-funded Lavi fighter-plane program. Israel, the Americans believe, passed on technology to Beijing. China's F-10 fighter jet is believed to be almost identical to the Lavi.

Washington has also expressed concern from time to time that Israel's arms trade with China could result in its military technology falling into the "wrong hands" - such as Iran's, for instance. But this argument rings rather hollow considering that the US itself supplies Pakistan with high-tech weaponry, despite Pakistan's "all-weather friendship" with China and Islamabad's abysmal record on the issue of nuclear and missile proliferation and its supply of military technology and know-how to Washington's foes.

Israel's damaged reputation
Unlike previous occasions when suspicions were expressed more quietly, with the Phalcon deal the issue erupted into the open. The cancellation of the Phalcon deal damaged Israel's image and interests to a considerable extent. It eroded Israel's credibility as a weapons supplier in the international arms market and it laid bare to the world Israel's susceptibility to US pressure.

The cancellation of the Phalcon deal not surprisingly led to a chill in Sino-Israel relations. Israel subsequently forked out $350 million in compensation to China, and there were no known arms sales through 2003. Back in 2002, a deal for Israeli communication satellites was signed. Early this year, an Israeli delegation went to China for talks on rebuilding military ties. Reports suggested that Israel and China were even considering reopening the Phalcon deal.

The military relationship is important for both countries. China is keen to have access to Israel's high-quality defense products and services, and the relationship with Israel has enabled it to acquire "dual-use technology" that the US and Europe have been reluctant to provide.

Israel, which is among the world's top exporters of arms, is keen on its military ties with China for several reasons. According to Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at the Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv and consultant to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council, since Israel does not sell arms to the Arab countries or Iran, it has fewer potential markets than other major players in the high-tech arms market. (However, a look at Israel's arms market over the past several decades indicates that the country has sold arms to regimes that other countries have been reluctant to trade with.)

Unlike most other arms manufacturers, Israel exports 75% of the total production of its military industries. Israel's military industry is dependent on exports for its survival. And arms sales to China are among its most lucrative businesses. Therefore, arms trade with China is very important, providing contracts for jobs as well as income to offset the high costs of maintaining Israel's technology and industrial base. Military trade has also paved the way for broader trade in other dual-use and high-tech goods. China's immense value as a trade partner for Israel's military industry is evident from Israel's engagement with China and Taiwan. In the early 1990s, Israel passed up defense deals with Taiwan so as not to damage its fledging relationship with China.

Eugene Kogan, a defense-industry analyst, writes in the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief that while Israel has rebuffed Taiwan's repeated attempts to revive relations with it, "when it comes to contact with China, the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MOD) promotes a clear-cut policy. China is an extremely important trade partner for the Israeli defense industry. As a result, the MOD, which oversees the arms trade with China, has ensured that Israel maintains a positive relationship with the PRC [People's Republic of China], while avoiding any contact with Taiwan which might disrupt this partnership."

The Israel-China military relationship also contributed to China softening its anti-Israel stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. China's policy moved from its pro-Arab tilt to a more nuanced appreciation of the Israeli position. (Chinese criticism of Israel increased markedly after the cancellation of the Phalcon deal.)

What is interesting about China's military relationship with Israel is that Beijing has been able to increase engagement with Israel without alienating the Arabs. Even Iran hasn't protested Beijing's close military ties to Israel.

Israel has much to lose by angering the Chinese. But it has more to lose by angering the US. The cost of not complying with Washington's demands could result in a cutback on the nearly $2 billion in foreign military assistance that the US provides Israel annually. It could result in political and diplomatic costs, too, for Israel. It will have to do a fine balancing act if it wants to maintain its military ties with China without provoking Washington's ire.


SOURCE

Asia Times, "US up in arms over Sino-Israel ties", 21 December 2004.
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/FL21Ak01.html


FURTHER READING

BBC News, "US 'anger' at Israel weapons sale", 16 December 2004.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4101961.stm

"The Insider" mailing list article, 29 December 2004.

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