Last week, the Obama administration announced a series of massive arms sales to Arab states. There was a $29.4 billion dollar package for Saudi Arabia that includes 84 F-15 fighter jets, as well as modernization of 70 existing aircrafts. It will include the latest generation air-to air missiles and precision-guided air-to-ground missiles that operate under all weather conditions, day or night. Elements of this package already emerged last year in a $60.5 billion sale that was announced in October 2010.
Last week, there was also a much smaller $3.8 billion sale of U.S. equipment to the United Arab Emirates, including mostly anti-missile systems like the THAAD – which, like the Israeli Arrow, was conceived to intercept incoming ballistic missiles from hostile states like Iran. Finally, it appears that the administration is going ahead with an $11 billion package, including advanced fighter jets and tanks, that will provide arms and training for the new Iraqi army. This development is of particular concern given the pro-Iranian orientation of its prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who also serves as Iraq’s defense minister.
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Israel and the U.S. have discussed these sales for decades. Sometimes the two sides entered into bitter struggles, like when the Reagan administration sought to sell Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircrafts to the Saudis in 1981. At other times, the U.S. and Israel worked out understandings. Back in 1978, when the Carter administration sold the first F-15s to Saudi Arabia, Israel was assured they would not be equipped with extra fuel tanks, or special racks for heavy bomb loads, or the latest air-to-air missiles. Moreover, the F-15s would only be deployed at distant air bases like Dhahran, Khamis Mushayt, and Taif, but not at Tabuk, which is about 150 kilometers from the Israeli border.
Israel was concerned that even if the Saudi Air Force did not attack Israel, the IAF had to take into account this possibility in the context of a general war with the Arab states, and it would therefore have to reduce the number of operational aircrafts it had available for the main front in a future conflict, holding them in reserve in the event the Saudis joined in. Washington dropped most of these limitations on the Saudi Air Force within a few years, but they nevertheless illustrated how Israel and the U.S. dealt with the American interest in building up Saudi air power.
After the struggle over the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia, the Reagan administration began to explicitly speak about a U.S. commitment to maintaining “Israel’s qualitative military edge,” which was maintained by every administration since then. In announcing the latest arms package for Saudi Arabia, Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, assured reporters at a State Department briefing that the sale “would not diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge.”
What should the Israeli approach be to these immense sales? Clearly, the strategic context for Israel in the Middle East has completely changed. In the struggle with Iran, the main threat to the Middle East today, Israel and Saudi Arabia are effectively on the same side, even if they have no diplomatic relations. Nevertheless, there are certain considerations that Israel must take into account and raise in its dialogue with the U.S., especially when it discusses how to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge.
There is the risk that advanced Western technologies transferred to certain Arab states will eventually end up in the hands of the Iranians. In the 1970s and ’80s, Israeli spokesmen would talk about the instability of the Arab regimes. At the time it was a false argument, even if it went over well on American television networks. Today, with the continuing insurrections in the Arab world, this objection has become a legitimate argument. No one can say with certainly that the Arab regimes surrounding Israel will still be there in two to three years as the revolts spread in the Arab street.
Moreover, should certain Arab states perceive that the U.S. and its Western allies are going to come to terms with an Iranian bomb, offering only an uncertain policy of containment, some will undoubtedly switch sides and join the Iranian bloc. This is exactly what happened to Qatar in 2007, when the Bush administration issued the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which incorrectly asserted that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. What usually follows a shift of this sort are joint exercises and an opportunity for the Iranians to inspect the U.S. arms being used by their new Arab allies. Because of these sorts of concerns, Israel itself canceled a $141 million sale of aerial intelligence systems to Turkey.
An issue that comes up from time to time is whether the sale of advanced U.S. weapons systems should be tied to progress in the peace process. In the 1970s, the U.S. used to compensate Israel for the risks it undertook in the peace process; thus when Israel agreed to withdraw from the Giddi and Mitla passes in Sinai and then agreed to pull out entirely upon signing the Camp David Accords, it was rewarded with new generations of combat aircrafts. Recently, Israel reached an agreement with the U.S. for the supply of F-35 stealth aircrafts, but then the idea was raised of increasing the size of the sale if Israel agreed to a second settlement freeze. Linking Israel’s qualitative edge to the peace process gives Mahmoud Abbas a veto over the upgrading of the Israeli Air Force, and should always be avoided.
Weapons sales to the Arab states are likely to become more controversial in the years ahead. If an Arab regime includes the Muslim Brotherhood, there will be voices in Washington that will say the U.S. needs to keep them on the side of the West, despite the clear-cut risks that are involved.