Israel calls off arms deal with China under US pressure

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel has called off an arms deal with China, confiscating key parts of unmanned drone aircraft, in a bid to defuse US anger over the sale, the Haaretz daily reported Sunday, but the decision could strain newly-repaired relations with Beijing.
The United States has imposed a series of tough military sanctions in response to Israel’s deal to service “Harpy” drone aircraft parts for China, Israeli officials say. China sent the parts to state-owned manufacturer Israel Aircraft Industries last year for what Israel says was routine maintenance. Washington contends it was for an important technological upgrade. Israel originally sold China the drones in the 1990s.

The US fears an arms buildup by China could threaten Taiwan and US forces in Asia.

A defence ministry delegation left Israel on Sunday for the US for talks on the issue, said ministry spokeswoman Rachel Niedak Ashkenazi. She refused to confirm or deny the Haaretz report, saying only that “proposals and agreements will be discussed within the framework of the ongoing discussions.” But defence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, confirmed that Israel would agree to confiscate the drone components. The officials said Israel also would sign a joint memo granting the Americans the authority to veto Israel arms sales to certain countries.

The US embassy in Tel Aviv confirmed discussions on arms sales to China were under way, but did not provide further details.

According to Haaretz, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday instructed the Israeli delegation to agree to all American demands. Officials in Sharon’s office declined to comment.

While Israel and the US have been reluctant to air the dispute publicly, both Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week acknowledged the crisis and expressed hopes it would soon be resolved.

China’s ministry of foreign affairs did not immediately respond to media queries about the Israeli decision.

Confiscating the Chinese parts would likely strain Israel’s relations with Beijing, which have only recently recovered from a similar fiasco. In 2000, Washington torpedoed a $2 billion (¤1.6 billion) Israeli sale of PHALCON reconnaissance planes to China. The botched deal caused ill will between Israel and China that was resolved only after Israel paid hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations.

But damage in relations with the United States, Israel’s closest ally, could be even more harmful to Israel.

In response to the Harpy deal, the US reportedly has halted cooperation on several projects, frozen delivery of sensitive equipment, and is even refusing to answer telephone calls from Israeli defence officials.

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