July/August 2000

Misguided Phalcon

(July 14) - After months of trying to square an increasingly unsquarable circle, at almost the last possible moment, Israel this week canceled the sale of the Phalcon radar system to China. Israel deserves credit for eventually doing the right thing, but simply putting the episode behind us is not enough. Too much damage was done for too long for this debacle to be dismissed as a momentary lapse, with no examination of lessons for the future.

Israel's mistake was not so much how it started down the track toward the diplomatic equivalent of a train wreck, but that it did not act to prevent disaster soon enough. In Israel's defense, few imagined what would happen when Israel competed with the British to sell an advanced airborne warning and control (AWACs) system about four years ago.

At that time, there were no extraordinary tensions in US-China or China-Taiwan relations. The US relationship with China was then, as it is now, deeply ambivalent. Throughout this period, the US has been deepening its trade and diplomatic relationship with China, while at the same time cajoling the Chinese on human rights, non-proliferation, and their relationship with Taiwan.

Israel noticed that the US did not treat China as a strategic threat, like the former Soviet Union; a rogue state, like Iraq; or a moral pariah, like South Africa during apartheid. Yet despite the paucity of indications from actual US behavior, US concerns about China contained all three of these elements.

Unfortunately - and arguably unfairly for Israel - US opposition to the sale remained muted for the few years between when Israel won the right to make the sale and the signing of a long-term contract with China last year. When in recent months a wall of opposition arose uniting the US Congress, administration, and even American Jewish organizations, it should have been obvious that this was not a matter that would simply blow over. At the heart of the Israeli failure of understanding was an inability to distinguish among different types of opposition. Israel has at times been falsely accused of leaking American technology, and has been involved in arguments over arms sales that were essentially commercial disputes. For months, however, Israel failed to recognize that the driving force behind opposition to the Phalcon sale was not anti-Israel bias, commercial interests, or election year politics.

Once the sale was widely perceived as a threat to US national interests, it was pointless to disparage American motives, argue that the threat was being overblown, or remind the US that it was less than sympathetic to Israeli security concerns during the fight over the sale of American AWACs planes to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.

Like it or not, the US-Israeli relationship is not a symmetrical one, though it is more reciprocally beneficial than most realize. As the world's only superpower, the US can afford to be seen as putting its commercial interests over Israeli security, even if it does pay some moral, strategic, and political price for doing so. From Israel's perspective, however, no arms sale, no matter how lucrative, can compare in strategic terms to the value of a US-Israel relationship based on trust, friendship, and shared values.

A security establishment that measures Israel's interests mainly in terms of keeping defense industries in the black, without recognizing the foreign policy repercussions of its actions, is doing the nation a severe disservice. Nor should the advisability of a controversial arms sale be measured simply by anticipating the amount of opposition it may cause.

The Phalcon sale fiasco should trigger not just an evaluation of how Israel could have so dramatically misread the United States, but a reevaluation of Israel's approach toward arms sales worldwide.

During the Cold War, Israel followed the US in downplaying the importance of democracy, so long as a country was on the right side of the US-Soviet divide. The US itself has been slow in increasing the importance of democracy in its own foreign policy in the post-Cold War world. Israel, however, has double interest in being in sync with, if not the vanguard of, the raising of support for democracy as a value in foreign policy.

First, Israel's primary attraction to the US and the West is not its population, resources, or high-tech-led economy, but its democratic vitality. Democracy is what makes us stand out most in the region, and is the fountain of our strength.

Second, Israel has a strong interest in the West ceasing to treat the Middle East as an acceptable exception to the global spread of democracy. Yet Israel giggles along with the rest of the West when Syria's dictator is replaced by his son, upon winning 97 percent of the "vote." By selling advanced weaponry to China, with nary a thought for the interests of increasingly democratic Taiwan, Israel signals that it could care less about democracy beyond its own borders. Though we are hardly alone in this mistake, our callousness toward the international cause of democracy is at once selfish and against our self-interest.

© Jerusalem Post 2000

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