- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2000

JERUSALEM Israel welcomed Chinese President Jiang Zemin to the Jewish state yesterday on a historic visit that came amid U.S. pressure to cancel a lucrative arms deal with China.

The high-profile recognition of Israel by one of the world's major powers was seen as strong proof here that the days of diplomatic isolation are over for good.

However, the new status also brought new problems for Israel, such as juggling the divergent interests of the United States, its strongest ally, and a powerful new friend.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak welcomed Mr. Jiang less than 24 hours after meeting at the White House with President Clinton, who urged the Israeli leader to cancel the planned sale of a sophisticated airborne surveillance system to China.

Mr. Clinton expressed deep displeasure and warned that the deal, potentially worth $2 billion, could undermine Israel's standing in the United States, said an Israeli official who attended Tuesday's White House summit.

In a press conference late last year, Mr. Clinton expressed fears that U.S. technology may be involved in the sale. Israeli officials subsequently said that the deal includes no U.S. military technology.

Israel's deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, said yesterday his country was committed to selling at least one surveillance system to China, which reportedly has the option to order three to seven more.

Israeli officials have suggested that after the first plane is sold, the deal could be frozen indefinitely to appease the United States.

Mr. Sneh said that, in the competitive international arms market, "there are no friends." Describing U.S. pressure on Israel as a "steamroller," he scoffed at U.S. complaints that the sale could upset the military balance in Asia and pose a threat to Taiwan.

Mr. Jiang arrived in Israel yesterday afternoon for a six-day visit, the first by a Chinese president to Israel. The countries established diplomatic relations in 1992, but secret ties go back to the early 1980s when Israel began selling arms to China.

Mr. Jiang's first stop was a reception by Israeli President Ezer Weizman. Describing Israel and China as ancient nations, Mr. Jiang said it was important to "strengthen the historical friendship between us … and to promote friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields between the two countries."

Israeli and Chinese officials yesterday signed agreements on education and industrial technology research and development.

During his visit, Mr. Jiang will hold talks with Mr. Barak and Israeli lawmakers, visit Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, and tour two communal farms in the Negev Desert to inspect agricultural projects. On Saturday, he will meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

A planned visit to Israel Aircraft Industries, which is outfitting a Soviet transport plane with the new PHALCON surveillance system, reportedly has been canceled to avoid drawing more attention to the deal.

Mr. Barak faces a difficult dilemma over the sale.

He needs Mr. Clinton's goodwill at a critical stage in the peace talks with the Palestinians and a planned Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, due by July.

However, Mr. Barak also has to protect Israel's defense industry. About 70 percent of the military equipment produced in Israel is exported, and China has emerged as a major client, said Gerald Steinberg, an expert on the Israeli defense industry.

Mr. Sneh told Israeli radio that in the past the United States has "brutally thrown Israel out" of other international arms markets.

Mr. Sneh said that when Washington sold similar early warning, or AWACS, planes to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, it assured Israel they are purely defensive.

Mr. Sneh said he did not believe the aircraft had changed their character today.

Mr. Sneh said the U.S. presidential campaign was a factor in the dispute. Noting that the Israel-China deal was signed three years ago, Mr. Sneh said: "Now, of all times, the issue has become hot, to no small degree because the entire Chinese issue has become a burning issue in domestic American politics."

Last week, the chairman of a House committee that oversees foreign aid threatened to deduct Israeli earnings from the sale of the planes from U.S. aid to Israel.

The State Department has said cutting aid was not the answer, but has expressed concern about the budding defense relationship between Israel and China.

Israel came under fire in 1990 after the CIA reported that it had improperly transferred U.S. Patriot anti-missile technology to China, The Washington Times reported at the time.

Last year, the Defense Intelligence Agency stated in a classified report, obtained by The Times, that it suspected Israel of improperly sharing restricted U.S. laser weapons technology with China.

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