Israel Hopes to Mend Rift With US Over Arms Sales to China

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Both Israel and the U.S. are hoping to mend the strain caused by Israel's sale of weapons to China, an Israeli spokesman said on Monday, following the visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region.

Both sides initially downplayed friction over the sale of advanced weapons to China -- a situation came to light late last year and has simmered since then.

The U.S. has asked Israel not return Harpy drones to China, which the Chinese purchased from Israel in 1994 and recently returned to Israel for servicing. The drones can destroy anti-missile batteries and radar systems.

Washington is concerned that the upgraded drones could compromise the security of its forces in the Pacific and also of Taiwan. The demand put Israel in a tight spot between its biggest ally, the U.S., and strengthening economic ties with China.

Israel has a commitment not to sell certain weapons to third parties without Washington's consent. It is unclear if the Harpy falls into the category.

"We're hopeful that it will soon be resolved," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. There is a "desire to reach understandings" on both sides, he added.

Prior to his meeting with Rice, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom apologized for a sale that might have hurt U.S. interests, but he said that Israel had been "acting in good faith."

Rice told reporters in Jerusalem that she had discussed the issue of arms sales to China with Israeli leaders both here and in Washington. She said she appreciated Israel's work on the issue and had discussed it with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

"I believe that the Israelis now understand our concerns," said Rice. "I'm certain that, as good partners can, that we can come to some resolution to allow us to proceed."

In a television interview, Rice refused to confirm if the U.S. was demanding that senior defense ministry officials be fired as part of the solution to the problem, saying only that the issue was to deal with the problem.

U.S. intervention in Israel's military sales is not new. In the summer of 2000, former President Bill Clinton forced former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to cancel the sale of an advanced airborne radar system to China, which would have netted Israel some $250 million, with the possibility of another $1 billion in subsequent sales.

At the time, the White House said it was concerned about the security implications of the deal.

Critics of the U.S. intervention have pointed out that the U.S. sells billions of dollars a year in sophisticated weaponry to states in the Middle East such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which present a potential threat to Israel.

Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Although Egypt and Israel have a treaty between them, the peace is considered a "cold" one. Egyptian citizens are discouraged from visiting Israel and the Egyptian government-run media is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.

Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yuval Steinitz, was quoted recently as saying that Israel and the U.S. needed to establish a mechanism to make sure that weapons are not "sold to potentially rival states" of the other.

Ironically, Rice and the Foreign Minister of the People's Republic of China, Li Zhaoxing, were both in Jerusalem on Sunday for talks with Israeli leaders.

According to Regev, the issue of the drones didn't even come up in talks between Shalom and the Chinese Foreign Minister.

Shalom and Zhaoxing discussed trade, agricultural cooperation, reforms at the United Nations, increasing political dialogue, culture and education, Regev said.

Bilateral trade between the two countries was $2.4 billion in 2004, which is double what it was in 2000. The Chinese foreign minister said he wanted to see that figure double again by 2008, Regev said.

See Earlier Story:
Israel in 'Very Difficult Position' Over Chinese Drone Repair, Diplomat Says (Dec. 30, 2004)

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