An Israeli deal that would test the wisdom of Solomon


JERUSALEM -- The tension between the United States and Israel over the sale of the Israeli PHALCON airborne radar system to China reminds me of the rabbi who tried to arbitrate an argument between two Jews.

"You're right," he tells the first one, who leaves smiling. Enter the second, who pleads his case passionately. "You're right," says the rabbi again. As the second Jew leaves, satisfied, the rabbi's wife asks: "How could you tell them both they were right?" With a sigh, the rabbi says, "You, too, are right."

It seems that everybody is right on this issue.

The opponents of the deal argue that delivering such a sophisticated system to the Chinese might endanger U.S. forces if relations between China and Taiwan deteriorate to the point of hostility. They may be right.

But in 1981, when the United States sold AWACS to Saudi Arabia, officially still at war with Israel, U.S. officials and congressmen told Israel that a defensive system like the AWACS will definitely not change the balance of power. If that reasoning was valid then, shouldn't it apply to the current case as well?

Friends of Israel advise it to drop the deal, so as not to jeopardize U.S.-Israeli relations. Earning $250 million initially, they say isn't worth the loss of good will on the part of Congress and the Clinton administration. Especially since Israel has just been asking for about $17 billion to compensate for a peace deal with the Syrians, to say nothing of the amount it will request when a final settlement with the Palestinians is on the table.

Some Israeli columnists argue that the only democracy in the Middle East shouldn't be selling weapons to a totalitarian state that threatens democratic Taiwan. If the British want to sell their Argus airborne early warning system to the Chinese, that's OK. But a strictly business approach is not for Israel

Of all the arguments against the deal, I find this last one most compelling, even painful. Because it's true. I wish Israel could avoid being in the arms business. But then I remember that the revenues from those sales enable us to carry on with our research and development, which gives us the qualitative edge over our enemies, so crucial for our survival. Another dilemma.

In defense of its case, Israel also has some good arguments. No American technology is involved. The United States didn't object when the deal was signed in 1996, so it isn't fair to object now and make Israel pay for the change in the U.S. attitude toward China.

Canceling the deal would destroy the credibility of Israel Aircraft Industries, the manufacturer of the Phased Array L-band Conformal (PHALCON) radar and hamper future sales.

Lastly, good trade relations with China might slow the transfer of Chinese military technology to Iran. Some Israelis even quietly suspect that U.S. defense contractors are working behind the scenes to weaken their Israeli competitors. Everybody is right. So what to do?

Take a timeout. Stop the unnecessary rhetoric coming from both sides and let the teams established to work out a solution quietly carry on with their job. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has promised that Israel would remain tuned to U.S. sensitivities.

There should not be a hasty conclusion to this latest difference between the two allies; Israeli-US relations have weathered previous crises.

Uri Dromi is the director of publications at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

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