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 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.