Israel in 'Very Difficult Position' Over Chinese Drone Repair, Diplomat Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel is in a "very difficult position" over an American demand that Israel not return Harpy drones to China that were sent here for servicing, an Israeli diplomat said on Thursday following the visit of the Chinese deputy prime minister here this week.

Israel sold the Harpy to China in 1994. China recently returned the drones to Israel for servicing. The drones destroy anti-missile batteries and radar systems by diving into them.

Washington is concerned that the drones will also be upgraded while here and reportedly demanded that Israel not return them to China.

Israel is now in a "very difficult position," said an Israeli diplomat who asked not to be named. Israel can't hold back the Harpies and can't return them without the spare parts.

There are two possibilities now, said the diplomat, who served earlier in China. The first is that Americans will force Israel to return the drones without the spare parts, and Israel will lose its credibility.

"It's humiliating for the Chinese. It's more humiliating for us," he said.

Or Israel may try to fight it out in Congress and say it's grossly unfair, he added.

Israel has been committed to clearing with Washington certain weapons sales to third parties. It's unclear if the Harpy falls into that category. Europeans have not been selling arms to China for 10 years due to an American request.

Chinese State Councilor (Deputy Prime Minister) Tang Jiaxuan met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in Jerusalem this week.

Tang delivered a subtle message to the U.S. not to interfere in the Israeli-Chinese deal.

"We cooperate with Israel in many fields; all this cooperation serves the fundamental interests of both sides, and none of them violate the interest of any third party," Tang said.

"Our cooperation has always been normal and healthy and not targeted against any third country, and that is why any interference, intervention or disturbance from any other country in the world is groundless and unreasonable in this matter," said Tang.

Shalom described Israeli-Chinese relations as "excellent" and said there is close cooperation between the nations "on a number of issues." Regarding the Harpy, he said that it was being taken care of at the governmental level, and Israel wanted to "keep it that way."

Shalom also announced that Israel and China had agreed to increase bilateral trade to $5 billion by 2008. Bilateral trade between the countries last year was more than $1.6 billion and grew by more than 30 percent during the first three quarters of this year, he said.

Tang was the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Jerusalem in the last several years, ever since the U.S. forced Israel to abandon a $250 million signed deal for the sale of the PHALCON surveillance system to the Chinese in 2000.

Israel's reluctance to cancel that deal created an unprecedented rift between Israel and the U.S. Congress, which feared that the system could be used to track American planes if trouble erupted between Beijing and Washington's ally, Taiwan.

The Chinese were upset by the cancellation and cooled relations with Israel over it.

"This visit was supposed to be more or less the end of the former crisis," said the diplomat.

For the last three or four years, the Chinese put relations with Israel "in cold storage."

They carried on "business as usual" but hadn't made any ministerial visits, visits from governors of provinces or mayors, although they had allowed Israeli ministers to visit, said the diplomat.

The ordeal caused the Chinese to lose respect for Israel, which they thought had enough power in Washington to push any weapons deal through Congress, he added.

Tang's visit was arranged prior to the current problems over the Harpy drones, which surfaced during the last few weeks.

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