Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel may cancel its sale of an advanced radar system to China to avoid antagonizing the United States, which sees the sale as a threat to American security interests.
Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said Friday Israel had become entangled in a "difficult problem" regarding the sale of the PHALCON system and would have to decide soon whether to jeopardize good relations with the U.S.
The intensity of the U.S.-Israeli disagreement over the advanced airborne surveillance system took Jerusalem by surprise. It could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Barak is pushing for President Clinton to mediate a three-way summit with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat with the goal of concluding an agreement between them. It's likely that such an agreement would be sealed with a U.S. pledge of a financial aid package.
The daily Ha'aretz newspaper reported Friday that members of Congress had warned leaders of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington that the peace process could be damaged if Jerusalem goes through with the quarter billion dollar deal.
They also said Congress would not approve any military aid package connected to U.S.-brokered agreements between Israel and Syrian, or Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Barak's willingness to relinquish territory strategic to Israel's own security interests has been based on the assumption that Washington would support the deal with giant aid packages that would let Israel to buy the most advanced high-tech military equipment.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv said that the report was inaccurate and that no congressmen had suggested linking the PHALCON sale to peace process aid packages.
Barak's office responded only with a statement that he had made earlier in the week. He said Israel was "taking serious note of American concerns regarding the sale" and that Israel had no "intention of harming any vital U.S. interest whatsoever."
Barak has been criticized for not having become more involved in the debate sooner, and for letting the rift with a traditionally-supportive Congress get out of hand.
A former Israeli government liaison to Congress, Yoram Ettinger, said Barak "doesn't want to understand the nature of American interests in the China-Taiwan conflict."
Rather than "displaying tenacity" in holding onto disputed territories like the Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem, Barak was "displaying a Rambo-like position on [the] Strait of Taiwan," Ettinger said.
He suggested that the trouble with the U.S. was only a symptom of a deeper problem.
"Barak is asking for an unprecedented multi-billion dollar aid package [from the U.S.] to protect Israel," he said.
Instead of holding onto land which gives Israel a natural strategic advantage, the prime minister was "deepening Israel's dependence on the U.S., exposing Israel to danger and undermining Israel's relations with the U.S."
Those ties had flourished in the past by Israel remaining strong in the region, he added.
China stepped into the dispute on Thursday, saying America was meddling in Israel's internal affairs.
"No country has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and make wanton remarks on the development of normal relations between China and other countries," foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao told reporters.
"We hope the U.S. will not make uninvited remarks on the development of China-Israel relations," Zhu added.
Israel signed a deal with China in 1996 to provide Beijing with one AWACS airborne radar system, fitted to a Russian-built cargo plane, with the option to provide additional systems in the future.
Earlier this week U.S. lawmakers voted against slashing aid to Israel for now, but made it clear that they would consider cuts in the future if Israel goes through with the deal.