- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

The respected and influential defense analyst of Ha'aretz, Zev Schiff, wrote earlier this month that Israel is "in the path of marching elephants" used by the two superpowers the United States and China and that Israel could be crushed under the feet of either one.

The U.S.-Israeli controversy is over an arms deal with China: the sale of an Israeli-manufactured early-warning plane. The deal was consummated four years ago. Israel consulted the Pentagon step-by-step throughout the development of the contract with China. This sale was no surprise to the United States. Unfortunately, it comes now at a time of serious tensions between China, Taiwan and the United States and, of all times, an election year in the United States.

Israel is caught in a tug-of-war between the U.S. Congress and China. The Pentagon says China will use the plane in a conflict with Taiwan, and if the United States becomes involved, this sophisticated weapon could be targeted against U.S. personnel.

This is an unrealistic domino projection. One could argue, as some Israelis do, that the AWACS system sold to Saudi Arabia by the U.S. in 1980 could be targeted against Israel, which never happened.

A more significant argument, which the Israeli government must take seriously, is the position of Congress and American public opinion. Four senators, Democrats and Republicans, have pleaded with Israel to call off the deal. This is a serious political development for Israel, which is strongly supported and defended by the Congress and is allied with the Congress more often than it is with the president. Congress feels very strongly about China, and the Republican majority that supports Taiwan is unhappy with Israel for selling the planes to China. Congress wants to preserve a military balance of power in the Straits of Taiwan. An Israeli sale to China is not helpful.

The Israeli-Chinese military deal must be understood in the context of the two nations' relationship. After decades of courting the Chinese, who were violently opposed to Israel throughout the Cold War, Israel has finally succeeded in building a bridge, especially in the military area. Although Israel recognized China in 1950, during the Korean War, Israel's cautious foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, voted with the United States on the U.N. resolution on Korea. Restraint was Israel's foreign policy when it came to China throughout the Korean War, especially during Chinese involvement.

Thus, it is most painful for Israel, a staunch ally of the United States, to be caught between its benefactor and its newly acquired friendship with the rising power of China. It is true that the relationship with China is based on military contracts, but there are other areas where China and Israel are beginning to find a common interest: agriculture, biochemistry and others.

As Mr. Schiff correctly says, "Beggars can't be choosers… . Israel is stretching out a hand for alms from the American superpower. We can't ask Uncle Sam for $17 billion in foreign assistance (we will now need an additional $300 million for the withdrawal from Lebanon) and, in the same breath, say that we are not prepared to consider how American vital interests will be impacted by a spy plane deal with China that will net us $220 million."

Unquestionably, Israel has to respect the national interest of the United States. But there is the smell of hypocrisy here. In 1998, the United States exported $3.5 billion worth of military equipment to China, which is 25 percent of the 10 top U.S. exports to China. It is no secret that the president of a U.S. missile company that donated $250,000 to the Clinton-Gore campaign and has been one of the major benefactors of the Democratic Party has also supplied the Chinese with secret electronic information to rectify a failure in military equipment his company had sold to China. This broke the U.S. embargo on the sale of top security equipment. This was investigated, along with other issues of campaign-finance irregularities connected with the Chinese government, by Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson's committee.

This does not excuse the Israelis, who must decide whether to consummate the sale and collect the $2 billion. According to Mr. Schiff, Israel's Ministry of Defense and the Pentagon are working on a formula that would allow for a partial arms deal with China and defuse the controversy. According to Mr. Schiff, "Washington will certainly insist on close 'coordination' (read, monitoring) with regard to future sales to China even those that do not involve American technology."

This is the price Israel has to pay when American interests are involved with its own. Israel's most important security interest is its close relationship with the United States. China is no ally of Israel and could decide tomorrow to turn elsewhere for military supply. It should be noted that Israel s competitor in this deal was the British Nimrod Co., and the British would certainly not be shy about selling the Chinese whatever they need.

The advantage for the United States in this scenario is that it is in a better position to put pressure on the Israelis than on any other of its allies.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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