- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2000

Israel's ambassador said Thursday that maintaining good relations with the United States would be paramount in his country's consideration of U.S. requests that it cancel a $2 billion deal to sell airborne military radar to China.

David Ivry also said Israel expects to ask the United States for $17 billion to finance the withdrawal of its military forces from southern Lebanon in July and from the Golan Heights if stalled Syrian peace talks bear fruit.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin is in Israel this week to discuss, among other things, the sale of at least one and as many as eight aircraft with sophisticated airborne radar similar to the U.S. AWACS system.

President Clinton and members of Congress oppose the sale for fear it could be used to neutralize Taiwan's air defenses in case of a conflict.

"We have now a problem with the United States over the interests of the United States," Mr. Ivry told editors and reporters at a luncheon at The Washington Times. "U.S. interests are more important than anything.

"Israel's national security depends on our relationship with the United States. We have to take into account U.S. interests and concerns."

Israel struck its deal to sell the planes four years ago. But U.S. concern mounted as China issued a series of threats before Taiwan's elections last month, and some members of Congress threatened to cut Israel's $3 billion a year in military and economic assistance by the same amount it earns from the radar sales.

Israel beat out a British company, Nimrod, in a competitive bid for the Chinese contract, and it reasons that if it has to abandon the sale over U.S. objections, the British firm will simply take it up.

The sale involves "indigenous" technology developed by Israel, not U.S. technology that it is forbidden to resell, Mr. Ivry said. "We are very much committed not to divert any technology of the United States."

Aside from the $2 billion value of the eight-plane deal, Israel hopes to build a friendship with China.

"We do not want to have China hostile to Israel," he said, noting that Beijing could send arms to the region, which could harm American as well as Israeli interests.

Mr. Clinton on Tuesday told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak of U.S. concerns about the sale.

Mr. Barak and Mr. Clinton said after their meeting that the two governments had agreed to hold discussions on the radar sale. The first radar system is not due to be delivered for 18 months, said Mr. Ivry, offering a chance to reach some compromise.

Mr. Ivry also suggested the highest price tag yet for American assistance on a peace deal with Syria.

Israeli officials estimated in December that it would cost as much as $10 billion to relocate 17,000 Jewish settlers from the Golan Heights and $8 billion to relocate military bases, saying U.S. taxpayers would be asked to foot at least part of the bill.

But Mr. Ivry said Thursday it would cost $17 billion over five to seven years for military redeployments alone, counting a withdrawal from southern Lebanon as well as the Golan Heights.

He said the United States would be expected to bear all the military costs while other countries in Europe and elsewhere would assume the bulk of the cost of moving the Golan settlers.

Regarding the Middle East peace process, Mr. Ivry said Syria needed to talk to Israel directly not through U.S. negotiators before a real peace pact could be reached that would win the backing of the Israeli public.

"Israel wants direct talks with Syria," he said. "You can't have peace if you can't talk."

At Syrian-Israeli talks in Washington and West Virginia in December and January, Syrian officials and journalists refused to speak to Israelis, even privately over dinner and in the press room. All talks were through U.S. intermediaries.

Mr. Ivry warned that while Israel, in its 1978 Egyptian peace talks, eventually backed down and gave up all of the Sinai it had seized in the 1967 war, including airfields, it cannot do the same about Syria's demand to go back to the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

"This is more complex" because the Sea of Galilee is the largest reservoir of fresh water for Israel.

Mr. Ivry also condemned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for criticizing Mr. Barak recently.

"Barak needs a better atmosphere," he said, adding that when Mr. Arafat visits Mr. Clinton April 21 in Washington "this will be cleared up."

In a third and final land transfer to the Palestinians before a Sept. 13 deadline, Israel will give more than the 1 percent of the West Bank pledged by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the ambassador said.

But he said the amount would depend on what sort of deal Israel can strike with the Palestinians.

He stressed that both Arab and Israeli governments need to win approval of their own people as much as from the other side in the negotiations.

"Any solution must be one that both leaders can go with to their people and say, 'This is the best we can achieve.'

"Peace with Syria must come with a security package people can understand."

Also Thursday, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that President Clinton plans to pardon convicted spy Jonathan Pollard if Israel and the Palestinians reach a final peace pact in September.

However Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said that "during the visit of Prime Minister Barak in Washington, nothing new on the Pollard matter was finalized."

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