- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Rep. Sonny Callahan, Alabama Republican, will seek to withhold $250 million in aid to Israel if that nation insists upon selling a high-technology airborne warning and control system (AWACS) to China.

The Clinton administration objects to the congressman's plan, but congressional aides from both parties say there is growing concern over the sale and the trend it portends. Conversely, opponents of the plan and even some proponents worry that a heavy-handed slap at Israel would be ill-timed given the Mideast peace talks and Prime Minister Ehud Barak's shaky coalition in the Knesset, or parliament.

"If the secretary [of defense] tells us the sale is not a threat, then the issue is over," Mr. Callahan said yesterday of the $250 million sale to China of an AWACS built with an Israeli-made Phalcon radar system.

Mr. Callahan, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, would make release of the $250 million contingent upon certification by the U.S. secretary of defense that the sale would not jeopardize national security.

The provision, set to match the sale price of the AWACS, could be part of the 2001 spending bill for foreign aid Mr. Callahan's subcommittee is scheduled to mark up today.

Mr. Callahan would also withhold from the bill a provision that gives Israel all of its aid within 30 days of the beginning of the fiscal year. Last year, Israel received about $3 billion in economic and military assistance. Other countries do not get this so-called early dispersal, and instead have their aid spread throughout the year.

The early dispersal provision could be added as the foreign aid bill progresses through Congress, but the threat of withholding the privilege will be a "hammer" that could fall at any time, Mr. Callahan said.

The chairman in charge of the Senate bill, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said that the sale is "worthy of concern," but that he has not yet had time to consider Mr. Callahan's proposal.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, who serves on Mr. McConnell's committee, said the Phalcon sale by Israel was not appropriate, but in light of Middle East peace negotiations, "it is not the time to be schoolmarmish."

Nonetheless, Mr. Callahan has strong and diverse allies, including Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young, and Reps. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, and Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat.

"I totally agree with Sonny," said Mr. Obey, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. Mr. Obey called the sale a threat to national security but said he would withhold backing for the Callahan plan "for the moment" if the administration felt the plan would be counterproductive or send mixed signals to the peace process.

But "if the sale goes forward, then all bets are off," Mr. Obey said.

Mr. Young said he does not necessarily support the specific proposal, but absolutely shares Mr. Callahan's concerns.

It is not in the nation's interest to provide support that "might find its way to an adversary," Mr. Young said. "It wouldn't be the same money," Mr. Young said of the $250 million Mr. Callahan would withhold, "but money is fungible," or interchangeable.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has said the administration opposes Mr. Callahan's proposals.

"Although the United States has real concerns about the proposed Israeli sale of Phalcon aircraft to China and we are discussing the matter with the Israeli government we do not believe that linking this issue to our assistance to Israel is the appropriate way to proceed," Mrs. Albright told reporters before departing for the Middle East.

A statement released yesterday by the State Department said the administration wants to "work in close consultation with Congress to resolve this in a way that is consistent with our close strategic relationship with Israel."

The sale was announced in 1996, but the actual outfitting of the plane, a Russian Il-76, with the Israeli-made Phalcon radar system was not detected until last October.

The aircraft will boost the Chinese military's capability to target enemy forces with "over-the-horizon" surveillance. U.S. defense experts view the sale with alarm because it could be used to directly threaten U.S. aircraft carriers and naval forces in the Pacific should they be called to defend Taiwan.

In April, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen urged the Israeli prime minister not to go through with the deal.

"We are aware of the sensitivity in the United States with regard to China," Mr. Barak told Mr. Cohen. But Mr. Barak added, "We are, of course, aware also of our commitment in the contracts that we have signed."

China could buy between three and seven additional aircraft.

Some say the short-term impact of the sale on the security of Taiwan is less important than the long-term impact of the transfer of sensitive technologies. The United States would face the prospect of China's developing even more sophisticated weapons and possibly selling them to U.S. enemies, congressional aides and defense experts said yesterday.

Israel has insisted that the Phalcon system built by Israel Aircraft Industries contains no U.S. technology.

That argument is backed by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is "vehemently opposed" to tying Israel's aid to the Phalcon sale.

The groups says the proposal would set a dangerous precedent.

"Once it starts, it never stops," said Ken Bricker, spokesman for AIPAC.

"Israel played by the rules" when it announced the sale, but suddenly finds itself under attack now that U.S.-Sino relations have cooled, Mr. Bricker said.

He also noted that the Senate had passed its version of the foreign aid bill with no strings attached.

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