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The Americans mean business when it comes to Israeli arms sales

By Nathan Guttman
July 30, 2002


WASHINGTON - Veteran diplomats in Washington were not surprised by the seasonal outburst of complaints about Israel's use of American-made weapons against the Palestinians in the territories. The calls to limit arms sales to Israel because they are used to kill Palestinian civilians and children were met with nearly automatic responses by the U.S. State Department and didn't draw much attention in the administration and the press.

But while the Israelis take comfort in the American backing for the use of sophisticated weaponry supplied by the U.S., they were surprised on another front: An unequivocal clarification that the Americans will oppose any sales of the Arrow anti-missile system to India. And a news item in the Taiwanese China Times about the U.S. offering Taiwan submarine plans developed by Israel and Germany was more proof that it's the business of arms, and not the use of them, that raises American hackles.

The news about the many civilians - including children - killed and wounded when Israel used an American supplied F-16 to assassinate Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh revived demands for an examination into how Israel uses American weapons. First off the mark to protest was the Arab-American Institute, the pro-Arab lobby headed by James Zogby. He called for an investigation into whether Israel had violated laws governing arms exports, and said that if the president, as the White House spokesman said, "really believes the Israeli use of F-16s was `heavy-handed,' the U.S. should restrain Israel." Other Arab groups joined the call with similar arguments.

But the complaints against Israel were rebuffed with diplomatic language by the State Department. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. constantly monitors Israel's use of American-made weapons, and State Spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. does not regard the Gaza incident as a legal matter, but a diplomatic one. He said the U.S. does not try to uncover legal details to use against Israel. This is standard operating procedure for the Americans - it's how they responded to other incidents during the intifada, when Congressmen or Arab lobbyists complained about Israel's use of F-16s, F-15s and helicopter gunships against Palestinian targets.

No violations of use

Why does U.S. State Department backing for Israel when it uses American arms come so quickly. The reasons are domestic, and are not because of support for the actual operations, such as the one in Gaza. The administration believes in solving problems through diplomatic and personal contacts, so the Gaza operation, for example, is a matter for ambassadors and statesmen and not for legalistic interpretations of foreign aid laws. Furthermore, the last thing the administration wants is for Congress to usurp its control over relations with Israel. Congress is the body that decides how to deal with states that violate the rules for using American arms. And given the current state of politics in the U.S., it's impossible to imagine circumstances in which Congress, which is decidedly pro-Israel, would take any action against Israel for bombing a target who was a Hamas commander.

U.S. arms export laws require the state department to report to Congress on violations of arms export rules by countries that have bought those weapons from the U.S. The law says the weapons can be used for domestic security, legitimate self-defense, participation in arrangements that comply with UN decisions, or for civil operations. In addition, the U.S. can tack on other special conditions for any specific arms deal. Stinger missiles, for example, cannot be sold to certain countries without specific approval from the U.S.

The only attempt to bring the matter of U.S. arms being used by Israel against Palestinians was by a Michigan Democrat John Conyers Jr., considered pro-Arab in his outlook. He asked the Congress's comptroller to investigate Israel's use of American weaponry in the intifada. Six months later, in September 2001, a report was issued to Congress. It detailed U.S. arms sales to Middle East countries in the last decade, and briefly touched on the question of use, bringing State Department and Pentagon responses that there have been no violations of permissible use.

No Arrows to India

But while as far as Israel's use of the arms is concerned, the U.S. gives Israel a free hand, when it comes to sales and exports, it sometimes shackles Jerusalem. Just this week, as Powell headed to Asia, anonymous sources in the State Department made clear Washington would prohibit Israel's sale of the Arrow missile system to India. Israel was surprised by the timing of the issue, when in any case Israel needs its entire stockpile of missiles for the system, in case of a possible American offensive against Iraq.

The American explanations for its opposition to the sale, which has not yet been officially prohibited by the administration, is that the missile defense system would upset the delicate balance of power in the region and increase the arms race, since Pakistan would also look to acquire such systems. The Americans claimed the sale could violate missile anti-proliferation treaties, meant to prevent missile sales to foreign countries.

Israeli arguments that the Arrow is a missile defense system, not an offensive system, and so it does not violate the non-proliferation treaty. Nor did their reminders help that the system was a joint American-Israel project and in any case can't be sold without American permission. But the administration is being very strict on the issue, both publicly and privately.

Others have a different explanation for the American prohibition on Arrow sales to India. They say the administration acting on behalf of American industry. Next month, Raytheon, which makes the Patriot missile system, is presenting to India its parallel product to the Arrow, the PAC-4, and the administration wants to improve chances for the American company to get the contract.

But perhaps the most interesting development this past week was an item in the China Times saying the U.S. had offered Taiwan acquisition of the plans used to develop Israel's German-built Dolphin class submarines. If the ban on Arrow sales to India is an immediate blow to Israel's arms industry, an American sale of Israeli plans to Taiwan is a double blow, since it sabotages future Israeli sales of the plans. According to the China Times report, the Americans offered Taiwan a choice of several types of submarines, including the Dolphin.

The administration has not verified the report, but Israeli sources say the most surprising aspect of it is the fact the Americans did not consult with Israel before the offer was made to Taiwan, if indeed it was made.

Either way, the Israeli conclusion from this past week of friction over weapons with the administration remains the same: As long as the issues are about Israel's actual use of American arms, the two countries see eye-to-eye, despite various laws on the books. It's the business aspect that creates the real friction, where the interests of the two countries part. And as Israel learned most recently in the Phalcon affair, it's very difficult to beat the Americans when it comes to business.