U.S.-Israel Tensions Rising On Eve of Disengagement

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 12, 2005, issue of August 12, 2005.

Despite the rapid approach of an unprecedented Gaza withdrawal that Israeli leaders depict as evidence of a high point in Israeli-American ties, the two allies have found themselves embroiled in recent days in a bewildering number of highly visible disputes of visceral intensity.

Seemingly without connection to one another, Israel has become mired in simultaneous conflicts with the Defense, State and Justice departments, all of them with no clear end in sight. The most serious is the ongoing dispute with the Pentagon over Israeli arms sales to China, which has led to a downgrading of American-Israeli defense cooperation. Another dispute erupted last month when Jerusalem locked horns with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over her call for Israel to help arm Palestinian security forces.

Both disputes come amid continuing Israeli concerns about the FBI’s investigation and indictment of two former top officials of the pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, on suspicion of passing classified information to Israel. Last week, Jerusalem said it would not allow its diplomats to be interviewed on the case by FBI investigators.

Senior Israeli and American officials told the Forward that the proliferation of bilateral disputes was at least partly a result of the upcoming Gaza withdrawal, which has, in both countries, dominated the agendas of officials who normally manage the relationship.

“Everybody understands what the priorities are, and what we need to focus on,” said Prime Minister Sharon’s communications adviser, Raanan Gissin. Referring to the Gaza withdrawal, Gissin said: “There are issues that are critical, and issues that are important. You deal first with the critical issues, and then the important ones. We can resolve those after the disengagement.”

Nonetheless, the visibility and ongoing nature of the disputes is causing concern in some circles.

Given the complexity of American-Israeli ties, experts say, small tensions arise constantly, but leaders on both sides usually work to keep them out of public view. This pattern appears to have collapsed in recent months.

American officials “are not doing what they could to prevent these things from being exposed in public,” said former American diplomat Dennis Ross, who headed Middle East policymaking in the first Bush and Clinton administrations. He is now a fellow at a pro-Israel think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

On the American side, Ross said, the Bush administration’s preoccupation with the Gaza disengagement plan and the war in Iraq has allowed factions within the executive branch to push more contentious agendas. “What you’ve got is an administration that is heavily preoccupied with other things,” Ross said. “That makes it easier for localized interests in the administration to pursue what matters to them.”

The most explosive issue on the table involves American concerns about Israel’s weapons sales to China. In recent months, the Pentagon has scaled back some defense information-sharing with Jerusalem, after Israel agreed to repair unmanned Harpy attack drones it had sold to China. American officials contended that Israel was in fact upgrading the drones in violation of an American-Israeli monitoring mechanism and demanded that Israel return them to China. Israel agreed to cancel the deal, but Washington has asked for stronger assurances.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz canceled a mid-July trip to Washington because of the dispute.

Gissin, Sharon’s spokesman, said that Israel is “inching toward” the drafting of a new memorandum on the issue of technology transfer. But he said that will not likely happen until after the disengagement. “There are other pressing issues that had to be done,” Gissin said.

The most recent tensions have arisen largely because of the disengagement plan itself. When Rice was in Israel at the end of July, she pushed the Israelis to allow the transfer of ammunition to the Palestinian security forces, so that they could take control of Gaza more effectively after Israel leaves.

One of Sharon’s top advisors, Dov Weisglass, traveled to Washington last week, in part to explain Israel’s desire not to permit the transfer of any new ammunition or weaponry to the Palestinians. Israeli officials have said that the Palestinian Authority already possesses sufficient weaponry, and needs to reform its security forces to control them and prevent their use in anti-Israel terrorist attacks.

“It’s not the weapons or bullets they lack — it’s the will,” said Gissin.

Israeli officials have complained not only about Rice’s requests, but also the way in which she dealt with them. Unidentified Israeli sources were quoted in The New York Times last week complaining that Rice had been “forceful and even abrupt in her dealings with senior Israeli officials.”

While Israelis have spoken out forcefully on the arming of the Palestinians, American Jewish groups have remained noticeably silent on the issue in the American political arena. Top Jewish community officials say their reserve results partly from the fact that much of Washington is on vacation during August, and partly from the disengagement, which they say has consumed most of their organizations’ available resources.

Officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington-based lobbying organization, said there was a hesitance to enter the arena because the dispute involved a matter of Israeli national security, to be dealt with by the Israeli government.

That has not barred all criticism. At a meeting Tuesday with Jewish communal leaders in New York, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, was “strongly questioned’ on recent administration policies by the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein.

“Bush is one of the most difficult presidents Israel has ever had to deal with,” Klein said, explaining his exchange with Mehlman.

Most of the other leaders attendance asked only polite questions, however, disregarding the recent tensions between Israel and the United States.

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