WASHINGTON -- The United States cleared Israel yesterday of transferring prized Patriot missile technology to China.
In another move likely to help ease tensions with Israel, the United States announced that the sixth round of Middle East peace negotiations would be moved out of Washington to a city closer to the region. The next round -- the fifth -- will open here April 27.
A State Department announcement giving Israel a "clean bill of health" on the Patriot charge ended a particularly bitter episode in U.S.-Israeli relations.
But it did not absolve Israel of what the department's inspector general has concluded was a "systematic and growing" pattern of transfers from 1983 until last summer to countries barred from getting sensitive U.S. technology.
Nor did it rule out the possibility that China might have acquired Patriot technology from a country other than Israel.
The Patriot charge first surfaced in an intelligence leak to the Washington Times, prompting the State Department to dispatch a 17-member team to Israel to investigate.
The leak, denounced by the Bush administration, occurred shortly before negotiations between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Congress over $10 billion in loan guarantees fell apart over Israel's refusal to halt settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
It triggered an outcry from Israelis charging that the Bush administration was trying to undermine the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Yesterday's five-sentence statement said: "Our team found no evidence that Israel had transferred a Patriot missile or Patriot missile technology. We plan no further action on this question with Israel and consider the matter closed."
Israel first acquired Patriot missiles to defend it against Iraqi Scud missiles attacks during the Persian Gulf war. The possibility that China could have obtained this technology was particularly alarming because it conducts an aggressive arms export business. Its customers have included Israel's enemies.
Yesterday's statement was carefully crafted in such a way as not to rule out the possibility that China might have acquired Patriot technology elsewhere.
Regarding the peace talks, Israel has wanted the negotiations to move between Israel and Arab cities, offering de facto Arab recognition of Israel. Arabs have consistently rejected this idea.
Until this week, Arab states and Palestinians have refused to supply a list of acceptable sites outside Washington. Yesterday, Margaret D. Tutwiler, the State Department spokeswoman, announced that they had and that there was some overlap between their suggestions and Israel's.
Though the possible site was closely held, there was speculation that the talks might shift to Cyprus, Switzerland, Rome or Madrid, Spain.
James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute predicted that the sixth round would not occur until after the Israeli elections in June.
Secretary Baker has made a strong effort in recent days to portray U.S.-Israeli ties as healthy. Interviewed on the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" Wednesday, he stressed that the fundamentals -- shared values, strategic cooperation and the U.S. commitment to Israel's security -- have not changed.
His effort counters repeated criticism from Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, campaigning in New York's Jewish community, that the Bush administration's attitude toward Israel had compromised the U.S. ability to serve as an honest broker in the peace talks.