Israel's protests are said to stall Gulf arms sale
WASHINGTON: A major arms-sale package that the Bush administration is planning to offer Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies to deter Iran has been delayed because of objections from Israel, which says that the advanced weaponry would erode its military advantage over its regional rivals, according to senior United States officials.
Israeli officials, including the former defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, have come to Washington in recent months to argue against elements of the planned sales. In particular, the Israelis are concerned about the possible transfer of precision-guided weapons that would give Saudi warplanes much more accurate ability to strike targets, officials said.
The United States has made few, if any, sales of satellite-guided ordnance to gulf countries, several officials said. Israel has been supplied with such weapons since the 1990s and used them extensively in its war against Hezbollah last summer.
The American officials would not provide a dollar figure for the planned sales. But one American defense industry executive said that if all the equipment under discussion with the Saudis and other gulf countries was eventually sold — including tanks, warships and advanced air defense systems — the deal could run from $5 billion to $10 billion.
The Israeli complaints have introduced a new uncertainty into the administration's plan to beef up Gulf militaries as a bulwark against Iran and as a demonstration that, no matter what happens in Iraq, Washington remains committed to the Sunni Arab governments around the region.
Several officials in the State Department and the Pentagon said that plans to formally notify Congress about the potential weapons sales had been delayed at least until later this month. After notification, Congress has 30 days to decide whether to block the sales. Support for maintaining Israel's military superiority remains strong on Capitol Hill, and administration officials are discussing how to allay the concerns, including the possibility of a separate arms package for Israel.
Some details of the planned sales to Gulf countries had been reported, including in The Boston Globe last month, but Israel's opposition to aspects of them had not been disclosed. David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy, declined to comment "due to sensitivities of issues such as this," he said.
United States officials from multiple agencies, several foreign officials and arms-industry executives discussed details about the weapons package on condition of anonymity because, they said, they were not authorized to publicly discuss the details, some of which are classified.
Administration officials twice scheduled briefings for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the planned sales in the past month; both times, the briefings were canceled at the last minute because of the Israeli concerns, according to administration officials and congressional staffers.
Israel has long warned about the growing power of Iran's military, and several officials said that Israel's concerns about the proposed American arms sales were focused primarily on precision-guided munitions and any other offensive weapons that would be provided to Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries. They said Israel did not seem intent on using its political clout in Congress to kill the entire planned sale.
"It's not like the Israelis are going to end up with nothing," said a senior administration official, adding "the Israelis understand that it's in our interest and their interest" that the United States try to shore up military systems for Sunni Arab allies. But Israel is also concerned that the Bush administration's ambitions for an American-Israeli-Sunni coalition allied against Iran may never materialize, or that there could be a revolution in Saudi Arabia that would leave the mostly American-made Saudi arsenal in the hands of militant Islamists.
"The Israelis believe the government of Saudi Arabia is under a great deal of pressure," said David Schenker, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Osama bin Laden would like to change the Saudi government to what he considers a real Islamist government. So Israel doesn't want them to have this heightened military capability."
The United States has long committed to preserving what is known as Israel's "qualitative military edge," or Q.M.E. "Israel has expressed concern that this proposal could affect the Q.M.E.," said a Defense Department official. "We don't want to go to Congress until we've got everybody on board." Israel and the United States have been in discussions over a new military aid package that could increase American support for Israel's military to around $3 billion from $2.4 billion.
The Israeli reaction to the planned sales has been relatively muted so far, compared with previous fights over sales of weapons or technology to Arab governments. Israeli officials and their allies in Washington, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have long opposed American arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Arab states. The Reagan administration's offer of Awacs early-warning radar planes to the Saudis in 1981 touched off a bruising battle between Congress and the White House, though the planes were eventually sold.
Bush administration officials began talks on ways of bolstering the gulf countries' defenses last year. After Saudi Arabia, the biggest customer is likely to be the United Arab Emirates, which in 2000 bought 80 F-16 fighters in a deal worth over $8 billion. It could take several years before some of the major items under consideration in the latest sales are delivered, officials stressed.
There is less Israeli opposition to possible sales to gulf countries of several advanced weapons systems that are seen as more defensive in nature, including advanced Patriot antimissile batteries as well as new missile-armed coastal warships and a version of the sophisticated Aegis radar system, officials and defense industry executives said. One defense industry official said Saudi Arabia was considering buying as many as a dozen of the new ships.
While the effort is publicly focused on countering Iran, American officials concede that one goal of the effort is also simply to demonstrate that the United States has no intention of turning away from the gulf region, even if it is forced to withdraw from Iraq without bringing stability there.
Aside from the Israeli objections to part of the arms package, Bush administration officials have had difficulty getting some gulf countries to commit to arms purchases, according to Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst with the Congressional Research Service. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries "are not sure what the long-term U.S. commitment is, and they don't want to be seen as ganging up on Iran in case we leave," Katzman said.