Washington — Almost everyone seems ecstatic about the biggest arms sale in U.S. history, a recently announced $60 billion deal with Saudi Arabia.
The celebrants include the Saudis, who will receive hundreds of high-end aircraft; American defense firms that will pocket huge profits from the agreement; unions whose members will have ample assembly lines to staff; and the Obama administration, which has succeeded in shoring up its strategic position in the Middle East against Iran.
But one of the most important parties involved in the negotiations for this huge deal is making its position clear simply through its silence. Israel and its supporters in the United States have chosen to quietly allow the deal to pass unopposed Congress.
This silence is explained both by behind-the-scenes agreements, reached between Washington and Jerusalem regarding the details of the deal, and by the new strategic map of the Middle East, which puts Israel and the Saudis on the same side, facing Iran as a common enemy.
The deal, announced on August 20, includes the sale to Saudi Arabia of 84 F-15 fighters, upgrades for another 70 older F-15s currently held by the Saudi air force and more than 100 attack helicopters of different models. The choppers are seen, in part, as useful against insurgents in neighboring Yemen.
The U.S. will also supply the Saudis with advanced missiles, bombs and radar systems as part of the fighter fleet. “It will enhance Saudi Arabia’s ability to deter and defend against threats to its borders and to its oil infrastructure, which is critical to our economic interests,” said Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, at the official roll-out of the planned sale.
Congress has until November 20 to examine the deal, and, if no objection is raised, the Saudis can begin the 20-year purchase process.
The administration made clear from the start that Israel had been consulted before finalizing the deal. “I think it’s fair to say that based on what we’ve heard at high levels, Israel does not object to this sale,” said Alexander Vershbow, assistant secretary of defense for international and security affairs, in an October 20 briefing at the State Department.
These consultations, according to Israeli sources, included meetings between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak, as well as more detailed working-level discussions. Barak’s message, the sources said, was that Israel had to “choose its battles” and would not try and fight this deal.
“We’re not thrilled about it,” said Jonathan Peled, spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, “but we have a good, continuous and close dialogue with the administration and a strong, ongoing commitment to maintain Israel’s military edge.”
This commitment is the key to Israel’s decision to sit out this debate. Equally important, the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington-based pro-Israel lobby, is following Israel’s lead.
Ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge in the face of such an extensive arms deal required action on several fronts. First, the U.S. promised that Israel would receive the advanced F-35 jet fighter, which is considered a step above the F-15s the Saudi are getting. (Among other things, the F-35, a stealth fighter, would give Israel the capability of reaching Iran undetected by radar.) Also, the American aircraft will be delivered to the Saudis with certain “technical safeguards”—such as limits on their firing systems and radar software—that would give Israel, with its high-end countermeasures, the upper hand in the unlikely event the weapons were ever turned against it.
In the past, the U.S. also made sure that Arab countries receiving advanced technology would be fully dependent on American parts and support, thus retaining America’s ability to pull the plug if arms are used against Israel.
“The U.S. did a good job of convincing Israelis,” said Michael Knights, a military expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He added that in exchange for its acceptance of America’s need to strengthen the Saudi military, Israel could be well compensated on its next arms request. “The fact that Israel is playing ball will definitely be taken into account,” Knights said.
An Israeli official said that Jerusalem also took into consideration the impact a $60 billion deal would have on the U.S. economy, as it is expected to create thousands of defense sector jobs.
The key argument, however, focused on Iran. Properly bolstered, Saudi military capabilities can serve as a counterweight to Iran’s growing influence in the region, Israelis believe.
This point is hotly debated. Some experts question whether the package can serve the purposes the United States claims it will.
“Do we really think Saudi Arabia will be able to use these arms against Iran?” asked Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “How capable are they,” she said, referring to the Saudi military, which many see as relatively weak. Because of this weakness, if Iran attacked Saudi Arabia, the United States itself would respond, she said.
It would also not be in America’s best interest if Saudi Arabia uses the new helicopters to attack rebels in neighboring Yemen, said Bryen.
Approval of the deal now hinges on a green light from Congress, which is expected to review the proposed sale in its post-election lame duck session. So far, only two legislators, both known for their pro-Israel views, have voiced reservations: Democrats Shelley Berkley of Nevada and Anthony Wiener from New York, who said he would introduce a resolution opposing the deal, since “Saudi Arabia has not behaved like an ally of the United States.”
Still, the administration has stated it believes, based on quiet discussions held with key congressmen, that Congress will not block the deal. This optimism is based in part on the fact that the pro-Israel lobby is not fighting against the deal.
“AIPAC remains concerned about the sale. We do not support U.S. arms sales to Arab countries that remain in a state of war with Israel,” said Jennifer Cannata, AIPAC spokesperson. But in practice, AIPAC deferred to the Israelis’ behind-the-scene agreement with the U.S. and is not mobilizing activists to block the sale.
Steve Rosen, a former top AIPAC strategist, said that AIPAC’s position on arms sales actually shifted after the 1991 Gulf War, which made pro-Israel activists see the advantages in arming Arab countries that shared common enemies with Israel. “There was always a bit of schizophrenia about this,” he said. On the one hand, the lobby supported helping these states. But on the other, it feared the weapons would be turned one day against Israel.
Josh Block, until recently AIPAC’s spokesman and now a D.C.-based consultant, said that while Israel and the U.S. have discussed ways to mitigate concerns regarding the deal, many in Congress “are seeking public and durable assurances from the Obama administration about the understandings that have been reached to ensure none of the weapons we sell can ever be used to attack us or our friends, or end up in the hands of people we don’t intend.”
Bryen, of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, questioned the ability of Israel and its supporters to block the sale even if they wanted to. In the past, she said, the pro-Israel lobby could do little more than make slight changes in arms deals, which included advanced Harpoon land-to-sea missiles and Maverick air-to-ground missiles.
“The Israeli lobby could step on the brakes but could never block a deal,” she said.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com