Why Israel Is Set to Stiff U.S. on China Arms Deal

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Just because it's the largest recipient of U.S. aid — and wants Washington to bankroll its peace agreements and cover its back when it withdraws from Lebanon — doesn't mean Israel is about to buckle under U.S. pressure to back out of an arms deal with China. Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Wednesday that his government would go ahead with a deal to supply an advanced airborne surveillance system to Beijing, despite pressure from President Clinton during his Tuesday meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Barak to stop the sale. The Israeli hard line coincides with an historic visit to the Jewish state by China's President Jiang Zemin Wednesday, but also reflects a growing tendency in Israel to define its long-term interests independently of the U.S. rather than to depend exclusively on Washington's good offices for its long-term survival.

More immediately, however, the arms sale also reflects the fact that Israel's burgeoning high-tech economy and substantial defense industry — capitalized in part by U.S. aid — position it to take an increasingly aggressive role in a global arms market increasingly hungry for the weapons of advanced, electronic-age warfare. "In this market of the defense industries of the world, in this competition, there are no friends," said Sneh. "Everyone is competing without mercy against everyone." That, of course, is not the way U.S. legislators see it, and a threat last week from the House Foreign Aid Committee to deduct the value of the sale from Israel's aid package suggests the White House may face growing domestic pressure to lean on the Barak and his government — not least because China itself lurks as a perennial hot-button domestic issue at election time. Israel can count on strong support in both parties on Capitol Hill when it comes to the peace process, and Republicans were even happy to underwrite former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's constant efforts to sabotage it, but kissing up to China might offend some traditionally pro-Israel GOP conservatives. Still, Barak might not tempt fate unless he was fairly secure in Israel's ability, if push comes to shove, to muster greater congressional support than its critics. After all, he ultimately knows where his bread is buttered.