Israel Battling Arms Sales to Foes : Diplomacy: Jerusalem wants to halt purchases from China, others. But its own arms export policy is complicating the effort.


During the past three months, officials from Israel, including Defense Minister Moshe Arens, have twice visited China, and a pair of Chinese have visited Israel. In public accounts, the talks were said to have focused on the impending establishment of relations between the giant of East Asia and the mini-state on the continent's far western lip.

During each visit, however, the talks also turned toward a problem that Israel considers pressing: Chinese sales of sophisticated arms to the Middle East and especially to Israel's arch-enemy, Syria.

The Israelis called for the sales to be curtailed. The Chinese were noncommittal, Israeli officials say.

The emphasis on arms sales highlights a budding Israeli campaign to turn off the tap of weapons that its Middle East adversaries are stockpiling. The Israelis fear that one lesson those adversaries will take from the Persian Gulf War is not the futility of amassing arms and armies but rather the need to obtain better and more destructive weaponry.

So Israel is hoping that suppliers, especially from the West, will take it upon themselves to stop selling arms to the Middle East and also put pressure on Third World suppliers--in particular China, North Korea, Pakistan, Argentina and Brazil--to lay off.

"We don't have much influence with these countries," said a Foreign Ministry official. "We hope the West will take the lead."

Complicating Israel's effort, however, is its own policy of exporting arms. The exports are viewed as a needed moneymaker to shore up its home defense industries. Among the ironies of its request to China is that Israel itself has provided Beijing with the technology to upgrade range finders in tanks, navigation systems in jets, missiles and anti-missile systems.

Like China, Israel has occasionally stepped into arms markets abandoned by Western suppliers for political reasons, in places as far flung as Guatemala and Ethiopia, and after the repression of students around Tian An Men Square, China itself. Israel has also supplied anti-ship Gabriel missiles to Taiwan, something that Beijing, which views the island as only temporarily free from the embrace of the motherland, probably does not appreciate.

In any event, the Israelis view Third World suppliers as a potential loose cannon. The most worrisome sign, from the Israeli point of view, is a recent effort by Syria to buy a research nuclear reactor. In Jerusalem, this was taken as an indication that Syria's President Hafez Assad is eager to enter territory already penetrated by Iraq's Saddam Hussein and try to develop his own nuclear bomb.

"Syria was as surprised as anyone else about the attempts of Iraq to build a bomb," said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official. "Now, it also wants in."

China has also supplied nuclear technology to Iran and Pakistan, both Muslim states hostile to Israel, and long-range missiles to Saudi Arabia. But China is only one of the arms suppliers to the Middle East.

Last year, North Korea sent a shipment of medium-range M-9 missiles to Damascus; the missiles, fired from deep inside Syria, would have the range to hit major Israeli cities. The missiles are viewed by Syria as a way of avoiding a head-on fight with the superior Israeli air force; they give Damascus a surer chance to retaliate in case of Israeli attack.

Czechoslovakia also has delivered tanks and Bulgaria artillery to Syria, and Argentina has been cooperating with Egypt on developing a long-range missile.

With the postwar weakening of Iraq, Syria has returned to the forefront of Israeli military worries. For a while, the decline of the Soviet Union appeared to put Damascus out of the quest for parity with Israel. The Soviet Union over the years had essentially given Syria arms worth $15 billion, but that changed two years ago and new supplies are on a cash-only basis.

However, the Syrians were able to cash in on their support for the U.S.-Saudi Arabian side against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. The Saudis handed $2 billion to Syria, and according to the Israelis, the Syrians are spending it all on weapons.

"Syria has always been committed to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict by force," said Zeev Eytan, a defense expert at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. He said that Syria's military "always wants to buy something new."

Besides pressing directly on Western and Third World countries to reduce arms sales, Israel has begun to take an interest in internationally organized controls. Under some pressure from the United States, it signed a missile non-proliferation treaty last year and joined an international conference on chemical arms in Europe.

"This is a change in attitude," said a Foreign Ministry official. "We preferred to stay out of international organs and agreements because we felt they were politicized and stacked against us. We want to get involved now, if for no other reason than to see that others don't cheat."

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