Tough questions on Saudi deal


WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Bush administration is pledging a 25 percent hike in defense aid to Israel as part of its effort to push through a massive arms deal for Saudi Arabia, but Democrats and Jewish groups say they still want a slew of questions answered before signing off on the plan.

For instance, what specific items will the Saudis be getting? Why do they need the weapons? How can the weapons be adjusted to minimize their potential threat to Israel? What do Israeli military leaders think? And does the aid boost to Israel come with a guarantee?

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The unanswered questions have led Democrats to threaten to block the deal. Pro-Israel groups are holding back from such threats but are demanding more answers.

“In general, the whole idea of giving these modern arms to what has to be considered an unstable regime is not the greatest idea in the world, ” said Morris Amitay, a founder of Washington PAC, a pro-Israel political action committee.

The administration’s proposal is seen as part of the White House effort to secure increased cooperation from Saudi Arabia in quelling Sunni militants in Iraq, negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and forging a united Arab bloc against Iran. Officials in Riyadh, however, reportedly are balking at some of the proposed restrictions on the Saudi arms purchases, setting up a potential dilemma for President Bush as he seeks to win over Arab support in the international arena without angering pro-Israel groups and their allies on Capitol Hill.

Saudi officials reportedly have told the administration that they want to avoid a public battle in the U.S. Congress over the deal similar to the one in the early 1980s that erupted as a result of the pro-Israel lobby’s failed effort to stop the sale of AWACS planes to Riyadh. But with potential foes already asking tough questions and opposition already bubbling in Congress, which must approve the deal, a fight seems increasingly likely even though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly endorsed the plan as a means to deter Iran.

Answers don’t seem immediately forthcoming. A statement released Monday by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice specified pledges of $30 billion for Israel and $13 billion to Egypt in defense aid over 10 years, but was notably evasive about what’s in store for Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf neighbors.

“We plan to initiate discussions with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States on a proposed package of military technologies that will help support their ability to secure peace and stability in the Gulf region, ” the statement said.

Reports said the sales would amount to $20 billion, but the evasiveness left Democrats in Congress wanting more answers.

Leading the calls for clarity were Jewish lawmakers.

“I have deep concerns about the president’s proposal to sell $20 billion in new arms to Saudi Arabia, ” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) “It is not good policy to provide more arms to regimes that may not be stable or that may not be able to maintain control of the military arms that are sold to them. “

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) announced the establishment of a bipartisan group of lawmakers that would introduce legislation to block the deal “the minute Congress is officially notified ” of the particulars of the sale, a statement from his office said.

So far, the group numbers six, including two other Jewish Democrats, Jerrold Nadler and Anthony Weiner, both of New York. Its lone Republican is Rep. Mike Ferguson of New Jersey. GOP leaders in Congress have yet to weigh in on the sale.

Congressional Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have adopted a wait-and-see approach.

“We have called for a thorough briefing in September, ” Rep. Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement, noting that his committee had been briefed on the sale last week. “We will see where we are then. We particularly want to ensure that these arrangements include only defensive systems and not items that can be used for other purposes. “

Speaking on background, top Democrats said terrorism and Saudi instability were not their only concerns. They said they do not trust the Republicans to deliver on the “sweetener ” — a boost in defense assistance to Israel from $2.4 billion to $3 billion a year. These Democrats noted that House Republicans voted last month against the 2008 foreign operations package that includes the latest $2.4 billion installment. Republicans suggest that vote was in part a symbolic protest against increased foreign expenditure, but Democrats say they are alarmed by the GOP’s willingness to break a taboo against opposing measures with aid for Israel.

Insiders say the overall package was in the works for months and that the Bush administration had consulted closely with Israel, also keeping informed the pro-Israel powerhouse AIPAC.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its allies within the Jewish community traditionally have said they cannot support defense aid to nations that do not recognize Israel. However, Jewish groups have suggested a willingness to stay out of the way, given reassurances that weapons sales to Arab states are not harmful to Israel.

Olmert may have given the deal his general approval, but potential opponents of the Saudi arms sale are eager to hear the views of Israel’s military brass, which in turn is waiting for more details about what new weapons would be flowing to the Saudis.

Much of the angst centers around reports that the package includes the Joint Direct Attack Munition, a kit that converts conventional weapons into “smart bombs. ” The Federation of American Scientists Web site describes it as producing weapons with “high accuracy, all-weather, autonomous, conventional bombing capability. “

CNN reported that the United States has assured Israel that JDAM-enhanced bombs will be “situated as far away from Israel as possible. “

The administration argues that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors need the weapons to counter Iran and the threat it continues to pose, even without the nuclear capability it is suspected of developing.

The problem with that argument, some in the pro-Israel community say, is that it does not make much strategic sense.

“The U.S. position is predicated on the assumption that Iran will attack Saudi Arabia frontally and the Saudis will have to respond alone — very dubious propositions both, ” according to an analysis by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “Iran is much more_likely to subvert the kingdom by inciting insurrection among the Shi’ites in the oil-producing region. JDAMs won’t help. “

Lantos expressed similar reservations, noting that the Saudis’ best defense in case of an Iranian attack would likely be the United States.

“There is no merit to the general argument that if the United States does not sell arms to these countries, they will go elsewhere and we will lose influence in the region, ” Lantos said in a statement. “We provide the kind of security for these countries that others cannot, and they know it. “

One pro-Israel strategy was already clear: Make certain the hike in aid to Israel comes through.

“We look forward to the successful conclusion of the new agreement, ” David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, said in a statement. “It will further solidify the U.S. commitment to assuring Israel’s qualitative edge over hostile neighbors. “

The statement made no mention of the package’s Saudi component.

Published: 07/31/2007