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Israel's China-U.S. weapons dilemma

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT, UPI Israel Correspondent

JERUSALEM, Dec. 29 (UPI) -- Israeli officials are seeking ways to deal with a U.S demand that they confiscate parts of Harpy drones they have sold China and Chinese expectations that they keep the agreement and repair, or upgrade, them.

Put differently, the Israelis are in the midst of a dispute between two world powers: One, the United States, whose friendship and assistance is crucial to the Jewish state, and the other is China with which Israel wants closer ties and which already owns the aircraft.

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At issue this time are components for Harpy strike drones that Israel sold China in the 1990s.

The Harpy is an unmanned aircraft that can stay in the air for seven hours, fly to a distance of 550 kilometers (342 miles), and crash into radar and anti-aircraft batteries.

Israel sold China "a few tens" of Harpy drones, a well-placed source told United Press International on condition he not be identified.

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Several components are back in Israel for repairs, not upgrading, a knowledgeable source told United Press International also on condition of anonymity. The Defense Ministry's Director General Amos Yaron Wednesday told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee the talk is only "about spare parts, nothing beyond that."

The United States reportedly wants Israel to confiscate them. It fears the drones could threaten U.S. troops in Taiwan.

Israel is committed to obtaining U.S. approval for the sale of any system that includes American components or know-how. However an Israeli official told UPI there is "nothing American" in those drones.

Several years ago, following another botched deal, Israel undertook also "not to harm any American interests and we meet that commitment 100 percent," Yaron told the Knesset's committee according to its spokesman Giora Pordes.

"We did not break any American law and no policy," Yaron reportedly stressed.

According to the Yediot Aharonot newspaper's defense specialist, Alex Fishman, Israel reported the Harpy's original sale to China.

"The Americans did not like the deal but did not express determined objections. In Israel, they understood (that to mean) everything is permitted," Fishman wrote.

However, in March the Pentagon asked Yaron whether Israel sold China more such drones.

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Yaron replied it provided spare parts in 2002. China asked for seven more kits in 2004, and because of the U.S. sensitivity, Yaron ordered that they not be delivered, the newspaper reported.

An Israeli defense official told UPI the agreement with China provides for maintenance and upgrading, and Israel was following that old agreement.

The Pentagon, however, did not accept Israel's explanations.

"We're fed up with your bluffs," Yediot Aharonot's Washington Correspondent Orli Azulai quoted an unnamed senior Pentagon official as saying. U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith "told people close to him" the Pentagon did not know Israel had sold such a system to China. It (Israel) did not report it and did not get an OK."

A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv declined to discuss the matter. He said it is in the Pentagon's hands.

The dispute ruffled the Pentagon's relations especially with Yaron, though it denied reports it had asked that he be sacked.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Feith have been friendly to Israel, and according to Yediot Aharonot, personal friends of Yaron, but now they are boycotting him. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper cancelled a visit to Israel that was expected several weeks ago.

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In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz expressed confidence in Yaron.

"He is an honest, reliable man and an excellent director general," Sharon told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tuesday.

Yaron nevertheless faced unpleasant moments at the committee's meeting Wednesday.

He briefed the committee's super-secret sub-committee for intelligence affairs for about an hour and a half and seemed to have convinced its members that he has been fair with the United States.

"I fully back Amos Yaron," former deputy defense minister and now a member of that committee, Ephraim Sneh, told reporters.

Yaron was then invited to address the full forum of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

He gave a short general statement, and said he hoped the matter would be resolved within two months, but declined to discuss details. He said he feared his presentation would be leaked to the press "and foreign intelligence services collect newspaper items."

Yaron's refusal to elaborate angered several opposition and coalition members.

"I cannot sit here like the three monkeys who do not hear, do not see and do not speak," committee member Uri Ariel of the hawkish National Union faction told UPI. He asked that the meeting be called off, and when refused, walked out with three other committee members.

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"The Americans are exaggerating a bit with their demands," Ariel told UPI. "All along they think they are being conned, but Israel is acting with transparency."

He said he did not know whether Israel was to upgrade or merely repair the systems sent it. However, he said, "Even if Israel is upgrading (the drones), if there are no American components and the weapons do not endanger the United States, then Israel too has (to see to its) interests. We're not the United States' 52nd state."

Former minister Yossi Sarid of the dovish Yahad faction was scathing.

"They expect us to blindly trust the Defense Ministry's director general? Why? Because it is Amos Yaron? The director general?"

"I cannot trust you," he reportedly told Yaron.

The onus is on Yaron, Sarid added, according to his spokesman Roy Yellin. "We're talking of Israel's most trusted friends in the United States, Wolfowitz and Feith, and if they do not trust you, who can trust the defense establishment?"

Yaron and the Defense Ministry were involved in the other botched deal that affected Israel's relations with the United States and China: The attempted sale of the Phalcon airborne reconnaissance plane in 1997.

The Phalcon is a tactical surveillance system that monitors airborne and surface targets and gathers signal intelligence. It was to be installed in a Russian made IL-76 aircraft. The Israel Aircraft Industries was equipping the plane when Israel buckled to the then-President Bill Clinton's pressure, cancelled the deal, removed its equipment and compensated the Chinese. U.S. Embassy officials were at the airport to make sure the plane left Israel without the sophisticated equipment.

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China's Deputy Prime Minister Tang Jiaxuan is currently visiting Israel and at a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom the two were asked how cancellation of the Harpy deal would affect Israel's relations with China.

Both dodged the question.

Israel's relations with China "are excellent. We closely cooperate on a long list of areas and in all topics," Shalom said.

As for the drones, "I would like to leave it in the ... handling of the two governments," he said in Hebrew. "I am sure that we'll come to an appropriate solution that will be achieved in a short time," he added in English.

Tang insisted the cooperation with Israel "has always been normal and healthy."

It "serves the fundamental interests of both sides and none of them violate the interests of a third party," he said. It was another way of telling the United States: Hands off.

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