Washington - As the Bush administration’s $20 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia heads for congressional debate, lawmakers are receiving contradictory signals from Israel and its supporters in the United States.
Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, told Congress last week that Israel does not oppose the deal and will not take a stand against it. At the same time, a letter backed by the pro-Israel lobby began circulating in the House of Representatives, demanding that the administration impose strict condition on how the Saudis will be allowed to use special bomb-guidance systems that are part of the sales deal.
The diverging views on the arms deal reflect the different priorities that Israeli and American lawmakers bring to the issue. While the Israelis are concerned primarily about the Iranian threat and see the Saudi arms deal as a strong signal to Iran, politicians in the United States have emphasized both the Saudis’ refusal to play a positive role in stabilizing Iraq and their unwillingness to strengthen the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas.
The arms deal was first announced three months ago, along with a new aid package for Israel that will reach $3 billion per year in military assistance during the next 10 years.
Though foreign arms deals do not require congressional approval, the president is obliged to inform Congress, giving lawmakers 30 days to oppose the deal. It is still not clear when the administration will present the notification regarding the Saudi deal, and congressional sources speculate that the president might choose to first present a smaller arms deal with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and only later bring the major Saudi deal to Congress.
During his visit to Washington last week, Barak held extensive meetings with lawmakers from both chambers who are involved in military and foreign aid legislation. According to Israeli sources, members of Congress in almost every meeting raised the issue of the Saudi arms deal and asked to hear Israel’s standpoint on it.
Barak, in a press briefing concluding his visit to the United States, said: “We have understandings and arrangements with the administration that make us confident that Israel’s military qualitative edge will be kept. We do not intend to oppose the deal.”
Barak had signed a memorandum of understanding several weeks ago with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in which the United States details America’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s military superiority in the region in light of the Saudi deal. The content of the memorandum was not made public and, according to congressional sources, was not presented in full to lawmakers.
Yet while the chief Israeli defense official was telling members of Congress that he sees no problem with the deal, Israel’s supporters in the House of Representatives began gathering signatures on a letter to the president, asking him to put restrictions and limitations on the Saudi arms deal.
The letter, which is being endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, focuses on the potential threat posed by the Joint Direct Attack Munitions, which is part of the deal.
“Any sales of JDAM technology to Saudi Arabia must come with guarantees backed by strict conditions notified to Congress followed by regular reporting, tight Congressional oversight and intense consultation with our ally Israel,” states the letter, which was authored by Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, and Congressman Christopher Carney, a Democrat representing Pennsylvania.
The letter, which has now reached more than 60 co-signers, ends with a direct warning: “Without such assurance, we will oppose the sale.”
Aipac spokeswoman Jennifer Cannata said that the organization’s support for the letter reflects the need to see any assurances relating to the Saudi arms deal being presented to Congress. “We haven’t seen the deal yet, and no one knows yet what it includes,” she said.
One condition that is not mentioned by Congress or the administration has to do with the possible Saudi participation in the upcoming Annapolis, Md., peace conference. The Saudis have not yet given their final answer to the invitation, but diplomatic sources said this week that they do not expect the United States to make a tie between the arms sale and the Saudi approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman