In the dispute between the United States and Europe - which wants to revoke the arms embargo imposed on China in 1989 - European newspapers are filled with facts and figures on arms sales to China. They doggedly insist that Israel is the second-biggest seller of arms to China, after Russia, and that the Israeli arms sales total $1.25 billion a year.
It sounds like an impressive accomplishment for the state, but a through examination in Israel reveals different numbers. Since 2000, Israel has sold to China, through 164 Israeli companies, defense equipment at an approximate value of only $35 million. Since 2003, when the U.S.-Israel mechanism for disclosure of weapons sales to China was set up, total sales from Israel to China have amounted to some $20 million.
The lesson is that one should take reports of the "professional" press with a grain of salt. This column will not talk about old transactions with China, except for the transaction that is now the bone of contention between Israel and the U.S. - the sale of about 100 Harpy combat UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in 1999, for about $70 million. The Americans allege that Israel is also engaged in upgrading these UAVs, and that it concealed facts about the transaction from the U.S.
This is not the first time Israel has found itself in a crisis related to arms sales to China. Past examples include Lavi combat aircraft technologies, air-to-air missiles and the Phalcon early-warning aircraft. One of the crises, which involved the ostensible sale to China by Israel of Patriot missile secrets, was occasioned by a hysterical American attitude.
High-ranking Israel Air Force officers now say they are coming up against furious allegations by the Americans, who contend that Israel is ostensibly training Chinese combat pilots. A high-ranking Pentagon official declared that Israel has to choose between the U.S. and China, an outlandish comment that deserves no response.
Former IAF commander Major General (Res.) Herzl Bodinger, who was appointed - with mutual agreement - to coordinate on behalf of Israel the American questions and the Israeli answers on the Harpy deal, has received no less than 500 questions from the Americans.
Douglas Feith, the assistant secretary of defense, has always demanded that Israel provide every detail of its arms deals with China, and would occasionally assert that Israel was continuing to sell the Harpy drones to China. It was explained to the Pentagon that Israel's current policy is not to sell China "firing weapons"; in its sales to China, Israel would do everything possible so as not to jeopardize American defense interests; and Israel would uphold its right not to disclose every commercial detail in advance, in relation to other defense equipment that is not included in the two previous categories. The U.S. did not take well to this last principle.
This was the case until Feith alleged a few months ago that the director general of the Ministry of Defense, Amos Yaron, had deceived him in the matter of spare parts for the Harpy. Feith bases his allegations on a note that Yaron wrote him during a meeting, when he was asked if Israel was still selling, or maintaining, spare parts for the Harpy. During a break in the meeting, Yaron telephoned the relevant parties in Israel and asked them about it; he received a negative answer.
When the meeting recommenced, this time in the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Yaron handed Feith a note in which he'd written that Israel did not have any spare parts sent from China. One week after his return to Israel, a shipment of spare parts arrived from China, for repair. Yaron dispatched an emissary to the Pentagon to report the matter. This new report raised a storm, and an accusation that Yaron had deceived Feith, even though he had hurried to inform the Pentagon of the change.
The spare parts sent by the Chinese were not repaired, and remain in Israel to this day, in accordance with a request from Washington. For now, the Chinese are being patient, but they have already begun to ask questions.
Since then, the Pentagon has turned a cold shoulder to Defense Ministry representatives. Requests from Israel Aircraft and other defense industries are being held up. At first they tried to demand that Yaron not take part in meetings in Israel with high-ranking American representatives, but Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz rejected this demand, and has even asked Yaron to join him on his upcoming visit to Washington.
At the same time, Mofaz convened about 50 leaders of the defense industry this week, and asked them to scrupulously report in advance on any business contacts with the Chinese, even if they only relate to civilian equipment manufactured by the defense industry.
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