Prime Minister Ehud Barak promised President Bill Clinton during their Washington summit in early April that he would review the sales in the light of American claims that the advanced technology would change the strategic balance if and when China tried to regain Taiwan by force. Clinton, like Defense Secretary William Cohen before him, argued that American pilots, coming to Taiwan's aid, might be shot down because of the Israeli radar.
What Barak was doing was ducking his head and waiting for the waves to wash over him. As he said twice during a joint press conference with Jiang Zemin: "We attach a great deal of importance to our relations with China and to our credibility." However much Israel cherishes its special relationship with Uncle Sam, Barak is calling Clinton's bluff. For that, as seen from here, is what the American bluster amounts to.
Israeli observers are convinced that the threats of aid cuts or a weakening of Israel's American safety net are nothing more than election propaganda. Why else would Washington force the issue now, rather than four years ago, when it was first advised of the transaction?
The Republicans, they say, are playing the Chinese card. Therefore, Clinton, on behalf of Al Gore, has to show that his administration is not going soft on Beijing. Their reading was reinforced last week when members of congress used the lever of American United Nations debt repayments to lobby for Israel's upgrading in the international body. Nor is Israel persuaded that China has any intention of invading Taiwan.
The AWACS deal is worth a fortune to Israel, in both monetary and diplomatic coinage. The surveillance plane is a joint Israeli-Russian product. Israel supplies the technology, Russia the airframe. But Israel's share of the $250 million price tag per plane is $200 million. That means a lot of export earnings and a lot of skilled jobs, especially if China ends up buying five planes. And none of the technology owes anything to American research or generosity. It's all blue and white.
At the same time, the very fact that Jiang Zemin spent six days on a state visit to Israel (floating in the Dead Sea as well as contemplating the Wall) is itself a transformation. China, with its 1.3 billion people, is the last remaining Communist power. Until diplomatic relations were established in 1992, it could be relied upon to support every anti-Israel resolution in every international forum. Israel was defined as an outpost of imperialism, the Arabs as a downtrodden people fighting for their freedom.
All this is changing. Israel has things that China wants -- above all, advanced military technology. The AWACS are neither the first nor the last of the items on Jiang Zemin's shopping list. In return, China, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has softened its old-fashioned Marxist hostility.
Speaking at the Knesset, the Chinese leader recalled 1,000-year ties between his people and Jewish traders, as well as China's hospitality to Jewish refugees during World War II. "This," he said, "laid a solid foundation for the establishment and growth of bilateral ties. These managed to grow on a healthy and rapid track, and gratifying results have been achieved." Ignore the history, that's the present.
Israel is fortified in its resistance to United States demands to cancel the AWACS deal by memories of the American supply of similar spy planes to Saudi Arabia nearly 20 years ago. Jerusalem and its Jewish friends in the states lobbied hard then against the sale, arguing that it would change the strategic balance in the Middle East. Even if Saudi Arabia did not join in a war, it could use the American AWACS to gather real-time information for its Arab brothers. Israeli pilots (sounds familiar?) would pay with their lives.
The United States retorted that AWACS was an essentially defensive weapon. As columnist Barry Rubin asked in the Jerusalem Post, if it was defensive then, how come it is suddenly offensive now?