China Is Not an Outpost

It is hard to think of anything more stupid than trying to outwit the U.S. administration. But this is what the military establishment has done.

The current crisis in the military relations with the United States could have been prevented, had the military establishment evinced a willingness to change. Its conservatism and narrow horizons led to the clash with the Pentagon, and Israel will now sign a "surrender agreement," and will also apparently bid farewell to some senior people at the Defense Ministry.

It is hard to think of anything more stupid than trying to outwit the U.S. administration. But this is what the military establishment has done. Five years ago, at the height of the romance between then-prime minister Ehud Barak and then-president Bill Clinton, the United States forced Israel into canceling the sale of Phalcon airborne early warning systems to the Chinese. But the Americans did not make do with this; to prevent further mishaps, they proposed regularizing the issue of weapons sales to "countries of concern" and signing an agreement that would obligate Israel to prior consultation with them. The draft was put forward in May 2000; after some haggling, the list of countries of concern was cut down from 27 to only four: China, India, Pakistan and Russia.

At the Defense Ministry, they took umbrage. Why should we tell the Americans? After all, they will just try to compete with us and edge us out of the market. Israel's defense industries need exports in order to exist and to develop innovative weapons for the Israel Defense Forces, say senior people in the defense establishment, and the agreement cuts us out of the huge Indian market. This is dissimulation: Even without the formal agreement, Israel waited for the green light from Washington before it sold major weapons systems to India, like the Phalcon. But in the absence of an agreement, Israel ostensibly maintained freedom of action for itself.

The solution was to wait "until the squire dies," as in the old Jewish excuse to procrastinate rather than solve a problem - "Either the dog will die or the squire will die" - and to spin out the negotiations until Clinton completed his term. The agreement was shelved, but it did not die. In the meantime, another mishap occurred, around the return of the Harpy drones from China for upgrading in Israel. The Americans boycotted the director of the Defense Ministry, and again at the Defense Ministry they tried to maneuver and wait for the retirement of top Pentagon man Doug Feith, who was behind the sanctions. Until it turned out that this wouldn't help, and that it was not a personal caprice but rather an established policy.

The defense establishment had reservations about formalizing the relations with the United States and preferred to operate in a gray area, with a wink, and not under agreements with the square Americans. Despite the declarations about strategic partnership and the generous aid, there are senior people at the Defense Ministry who are suspicious of the Americans' intentions and are warning about Israel's hands being tied and about damage to its deterrent capability. This approach led to the postponement of the defense agreement in 2000, and its price will now be paid by the Defense Ministry, which in addition to reporting on weapons sales will also have to relinquish its organizational control of the inspection of defense exports, and prepare a farewell party for the director general.

In the relations between Israel and the United States, there is a "triangle of interests." The Americans accept Israel's primacy on the Palestinian issue, which is perceived as essential for Israel. Their policy is coordinated with dictates from Jerusalem, and they turn a blind eye to the Jewish settlements in the territories and the outposts. Beyond the Jordan River and the desert, in relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, they take Israel's concerns into consideration and restrain sales of weapons to Arab armies. But Asia is an American playing field. China is not a godforsaken outpost in Samaria, and if the Americans are anxious about it, they expect Israel to act accordingly and not do whatever it fancies - or else it will be at the receiving end of sanctions and threats, until it gets the message and promises good behavior.

It isn't nice when a country sacrifices senior officials because of a demand by a foreign power, even a friendly one like the United States. After this development, what Israeli official will even dare insist on his position in contacts with the Americans? But this is the price for delayed comprehension and missing the opportunity for change that was given to the defense establishment five years ago.