U.S., Israel in dustup over weapons upgrade for China

Thursday, December 16, 2004

TEL AVIV Defense relations between Israel and the United States are in crisis over Israel's continued defense and security relations with China.

The United States has accused Israel of concealing a recent upgrade of a major Israeli weapons system sold to China in the mid-1990s.

Israeli and U.S. officials said the U.S. Defense Department has accused Defense Ministry director-general Amos Yaron of concealing the Israeli upgrade.

This was the first Israeli-U.S. confrontation over China since Washington forced Israel to cancel the sale of a Phalcon airborne early-warning alert system in 2001. At the time, Beijing had bought one Phalcon for $250 million with an option for an additional three systems, Middle East Newsline reported.

"The Pentagon eventually found out about the upgrade from a non-government source and when it asked questions from the Defense Ministry the answers were regarded as evasive," an Israeli source said. "At that point, the gloves came off and U.S. Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith said he would never deal with Yaron."

Over the last few months, officials said, the Pentagon has demanded an apology from Israel as well as the dismissal of Yaron. Officials said Feith has told his superiors that he would no longer meet or communicate with Yaron, a position supported by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

An industry source said the Israeli platform in question was not the Harpy armed unmanned aerial vehicle system, sold to China in the mid-1990s. The source said the system sold to China was part of a classified project that has not yet been reported.

In a statement on late Wednesday, the Defense Ministry acknowledged that Israel and the United States were discussing a weapons project for China.

The statement said the Pentagon has not demanded the resignation of Yaron. "Several months ago, the United States raised questions regarding Israeli security exports to China," the ministry said. "The issue was being mutually clarified in a good atmosphere. There is no U.S. demand to fire the director-general and this is not on the agenda."

Over the last decade, Israel has sold assault rifles, communications satellites, aircraft technology and advanced communications systems to Beijing.

They said that for the last four months the Pentagon has refused to meet Yaron and other senior Israeli defense officials.

"There is tension and it has been going on for a year or two," Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs Defense Committee, said.

"It has now come out. We are talking about a misunderstanding."

The crisis stemmed from the arrival of an unidentified "advanced and sensitive" Israeli weapons platform from China in early 2004, officials said. They said the Israeli Defense Ministry failed to report the arrival of the platform and its subsequent upgrade despite questions from Feith.

Officials said Israel has prepared spare parts and other components for the platform, but they have not yet been delivered to China. They said none of the spare parts are of U.S. origin.

The officials said the Pentagon has assessed that Israel was contracted to upgrade, rather than overhaul, the weapons platform for China. They said the Pentagon regarded the chapter as a violation of an Israeli pledge to report all defense and military deals with Beijing.

The Israeli pledge included the supply of a list of all defense and security contracts with China. Officials said Israel did not report the overhaul of the weapons system that arrived earlier this year. They said Israel reported the sale of the system during a meeting between the Pentagon and Defense Ministry in mid-2004 that included a review of Israeli-Chinese relations.

As a result, U.S. defense contacts with Washington has been managed by the Israeli military attache in Washington, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, officials said. They said even Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has been snubbed by Pentagon chiefs.

In 2004, Congress moved to impose sanctions on countries that sell weapons to China. The House Armed Services Committee approved a bill that would restrict exports of U.S. defense systems and sensitive dual-use technologies to any country that sells arms to Beijing. The panel also adopted an amendment that would prevent the Defense Department from doing business for five years with a company that sells weapons to China.

"It's the same way as we wouldn't want the United States to sell weapons to Iran," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said on Thursday.

[On Wednesday, U.S. authorities accused an Israeli arms dealer of trying to ship missile and fighter-jet components to Iran. A New York businessman, identified as Leib Kohn, admitted to participating in the smuggling of the components to Israel where the parts were destined to continue to Iran. Authorities said they didn't know whether Iran ever received the supplies.]

Officials said the United States has increased intelligence and other efforts to monitor Israel's defense and security relations with China. They said the Pentagon was upset over Israeli-Chinese talks in 2004 for new defense projects for Beijing.

In April 2004, Israel displayed the Vered Harim and other advanced military communications system at the Beijing International Military Logistics Exhibition. Vered Harim, or Mountain Rose, is a secure cellular network that transmits encrypted voice and data communications. The network, developed by Motorola Israel, links command cars and armored vehicles with headquarters.

"We have pledged not to sell any weapon that could hurt U.S. defense interests," [Res.] Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, the former chief of the Defense Ministry's Defense Directorate, said. "We don't sell to China because we don't want to hurt our relations with the United States."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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