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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - July 5, 2005

Q. ...on Israel coordination with the U.S. of arms exports... Q. Are U.S. immigrants to Israel playing a disproportionate role in anti-disengagement?

Q. Israel has reportedly yielded to Pentagon demands to coordinate its arms exports to sensitive countries with the United States. What are the ramifications for Israeli-American relations and for the Israeli arms industry?

A. Exactly five years ago, in July 2000, I was appointed a senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak and sent to the US to prepare American public opinion, and particularly the Jewish community, for the peace agreement that Barak hoped to achieve with the Palestinians at Camp David. Everyone I met--senior Jewish leaders, journalists, congressional staffers--stopped me before I could explain Barak's peace plan: "what about the Phalcon?" they asked.

The Phalcon was, and is, an intelligence surveillance aircraft made by Israel Aircraft Industries. It has radar, electronic and communications intelligence, and IFF (identify friend or foe) capabilities. In the late 1990s Israel had contracted to sell one for a billion dollars to the Peoples Republic of China despite repeated hints and indications from the Pentagon and the administration in general that such an aircraft in Chinese hands could, in the event of a China-Taiwan war, endanger Americans. The US, which increasingly fears the PRC's ambitious military development, might intervene in such a war to defend Taiwan, and its forces could be jeopardized by advanced Israeli weaponry in Chinese hands. Israeli experts on American affairs repeatedly warned the government that it was treading on very thin ice with the Phalcon deal. Yet Israel, whose vital indigenous arms industry is financed essentially through sales abroad and for whom China constituted a vast potential arms market, chose to ignore the American entreaties to rethink the Phalcon deal. The plane would be supplied to Beijing within months.

"The Phalcon misunderstanding will be taken care of before the Camp David talks begin," I replied as instructed. Sure enough, Barak canceled the Phalcon deal on the eve of the summit. Because of the huge delay in cancellation, IAI ended up paying the Chinese a $300 million fine. Since then the PRC has done very little arms business with Israel.

The abortive Phalcon deal was a case study in how not to manage Israeli arms sales to sensitive countries in the global age. The Israel Ministry of Defense, which oversees arms exports, proved oblivious to the prescient warnings of Israeli diplomats and America-watchers. Worse, even after the deal was canceled the ministry persisted in ignoring the lessons of the Phalcon/China fiasco. Now Israel is going to pay a heavy price for this neglect.

The most recent controversy, and the trigger for the new agreement, concerns Israeli-made Harpy anti-radar drones that self-destruct on target. They were sold and supplied to the PRC years ago. Last year, in accordance with the sales contract, certain parts were returned to Israel for refurbishing. Israel did not report this to the US. The Pentagon got wind of the shipment, decided to view it as upgrading, and objected, citing Israeli commitments made after the Phalcon affair. Israel, contractually obliged to service and return the parts to China, dug its heels in.

The overall perception was of an arrogant and over-sensitive Pentagon confronting an Israeli security establishment that is dangerously indifferent to global realities and doesn't shrink from oriental bazaar tactics when the need arises. The outcome was a prolonged standoff that effectively froze a number of vital areas of Israeli-American defense cooperation during the past year. The Pentagon's undersecretary for policy, Douglas Feith, pointedly accused Israel Ministry of Defense Director General Amos Yaron of acting in bad faith.

The confrontation has apparently been resolved, but at a considerable cost to Israel's freedom of maneuver in selling weapons. The relevant agreement is framed in terms of mutuality, meaning that the two sides will consult with one another on all sensitive sales, with the Pentagon pointing out that it has long restricted US arms sales to the Arab world in consideration of Israeli sensitivities. In reality, all Israeli weapons sales to sensitive countries will henceforth be subject to a Pentagon veto, whereas Israel can exercise no such veto regarding American sales. After a polite interval, Yaron will resign. Israel will also institute a more rigorous and independent monitoring process regarding prospective arms sales to sensitive destinations.

One problem for Israel is how to know when a destination is sensitive in US eyes. Another is--or should be--how to recognize an arms client who is bad for Israel's own long-term interests, e.g., Pinochet's Chile or apartheid South Africa. In the case of China it should have been sufficient to note US pressure on EU arms exporters to maintain an embargo on China. This is where diplomats and intelligence analysts should have had a bigger say. But in Israel, where the security establishment rather than the traditionally weak Foreign Ministry makes and often implements foreign policy and the prime minister is usually identified with the former and disdains the latter, this has frequently not been the case. There is also considerable criticism of the way the entire affair was managed by Yaron and his boss, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

The Israelis involved in the Harpy affair complain, understandably, about the arrogance of the American security establishment, which restricts Israeli access to the American arms market and whose demands regarding Israeli arms sales could cost Israel dearly. Israeli security planners are genuinely worried that the new American role in overseeing Israel's arms sales will deter buyers and radically reduce the scope of Israel's indigenous arms industry and R&D establishment. They can only hope that Washington's judgment will not be influenced by American commercial considerations (i.e., attempts by American arms manufacturers to neutralize the Israeli competition). The problem is the lack of symmetry between the two countries. While Israeli arms development has at times been ahead of America's, for example in the case of the Arrow anti-missile missile, Washington will always have the last word in the relationship. As James Baker told Yitzhak Rabin more than a decade and a half ago, "America is right even when she's not right".

The entire affair and its problematic--for Israel--outcome have also been amplified in the eyes of the Israeli security establishment by the AIPAC/Franklin affair. Specifically, there is a strong sense that in recent years the FBI and other American security arms have been monitoring Israeli activities in Washington more closely than before. While a broad spectrum of security cooperation efforts maintain business as usual, the two controversies have generated considerable unease in Israel.

The actual "Declaration of Understanding on Technology Export" has not yet been signed. Israel's negotiators will presumably seek the best deal possible. But in the end they will accept a degree of American intrusiveness regarding Israel's arms industry that did not exist before.

Q. An American-born IDF soldier demonstratively refused to obey orders last week when his unit was sent to destroy buildings in the Gaza Strip and he found himself in violent confrontation with settler demonstrators. Are American Jews playing a disproportionate role in the opposition to disengagement?

A. While American Jews make up about 15 percent of all settlers, and as much as 25 percent of the more extreme settlers, the anti-disengagement leaders who have emerged thus far do not appear to comprise many Americans. Corporal Avi Biber, the soldier in question, is from the settlement of Tekoa; his family moved to Israel eight years ago. His dramatic refusal to obey orders, made in front of the TV cameras, definitely gave the settlers a photogenic and sympathetic "poster boy". But his American accent was the only one heard that day.

There are two areas, however, where American Jewish involvement in the anti-disengagement campaign is very evident. One is financial support from American orthodox Jewish (as well as Christian evangelical) circles. There are no accurate figures concerning the extent of this support, but it appears to be considerable, and the settlers' campaign clearly does not suffer from a lack of funds.

A second area of concern are extremist American Jewish activists. Thus far the relatively large number of American Jewish immigrants in Israel who are usually associated with the violent Kach and Kahane Chai movements have not been conspicuous in the anti-disengagement protests. But the Israeli security services are concerned that American Jewish extremists are planning major acts of violence as August 15 approaches, the momentum to disengagement builds up, and milder forms of protest are seen to fail. Thus, known American Jewish extremists may not be allowed to enter the country; one who already has entered may soon be deported.

One indication as to how seriously the security establishment takes the threat from American Jewish extremists is evident when departing Ben Gurion Airport these days. A veteran Israeli like myself whose passport indicates he was born in the US now rates special attention. Questions that were never asked before at the security check have, in the age of disengagement, become routine: "When did you come to Israel? Where are you from in the United States? Where did you serve in the army? What's your occupation? Where are your children?"

American Jews as security threats to Israeli civil aviation: one more aspect of the struggle over the settlements.