2017-06-07 / Mideast

Trump wants to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia; Why is Israel (and its friends) keeping quiet?

By RON KAMPEAS JTA


President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (second from right) at the inauguration ceremony of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017. 
JTA photo by Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Council/AnadoluAgency/Getty Images. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (second from right) at the inauguration ceremony of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017. JTA photo by Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Council/AnadoluAgency/Getty Images. WASHINGTON—The year was 1981 and the director of AIPAC was calling for a “showdown” with the Reagan administration, saying, “This country is being held hostage to the whims of the Saudis.”

At issue was the sale to Saudi Arabia of AWACS, aircraft with radar-enabled surveillance capabilities that at the time were state of the art.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, then helmed by Tom Dine, famously lost the battle but won the war: President Ronald Reagan got the necessary congressional backing to secure the sales to Saudi Arabia, but AIPAC had drawn enough blood from a powerful and popular executive that from then on the Israel lobby became known as a force to be reckoned with.

Some 35 or so years later, another massive sale to Saudi Arabia is set to go, valued at $110-billion, and it also includes combat aircraft and sophisticated radar technology. President Donald Trump made the sale a signature accomplishment of his Middle East tour.

But this time, neither AIPAC nor Congress is putting up much of a fight.

Pro-Israel groups do have concerns, but no one is running to the ramparts just yet. AIPAC wants Congress to exercise its oversight capability, the lobby’s spokesman, Marshall Wittman, told JTA.

The Zionist Organization of America, the lone major Jewish group expressing reservations about the sale, was nonetheless circumspect in outlining what it said were its “serious concerns.”

“ZOA appreciates and echoes the good U.S. intentions related to the weapons sale to the Saudi Kingdom,” its May 22 statement said.

So what are the differences between 1981 and 2017?

IRAN AS A THREAT

Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, first proposed a major combat aircraft sale to Saudi Arabia as part of the Cold War. The bipartisan strategy for decades had been to squeeze the Soviets by arming U.S. allies.

By the time Reagan assumed responsibility for the relationship with Saudi Arabia, containing Iran became a factor. The 1979 revolution had installed an Islamist regime whose default was hostility to the West, particularly to the United States.

The ancient rivalry between Sunni Islam, centered in Saudi Arabia, and Shia Islam, predominant in Iran, took on a political hue almost as soon as the new Iranian regime was installed. Ayatollahs in Iran delivered broadsides against Saudis from the outset, and complained about Saudi treatment of Iranian pilgrims during the annual hajj to Mecca.

Saudi Arabia and the United States— already close—shared a new interest in keeping Iran from expanding its influence in the region.

That calculus remains in place nearly 40 years later. The difference is that Iran has sought to become a nuclear power, and one, moreover, with tens of thousands of troops battle hardened by the country’s seemingly endless engagements in the region. Whereas Israel in the 1980s saw Saudi Arabia mostly as a troublemaker with plenty of oil money, it now sees it as a partner with a vital interest in stopping Iran.

HOW SOLID IS THE HOUSE OF SAUD?

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Israel lobby’s principle objections to the sale of AWACs and other arms to the Saudis was twofold: Can you trust these guys? The Saudi regime was (and is) Islamist, and its alliance with the West was one of convenience, and not of shared values. And even if you can trust these guys, can you trust them to survive, given the fragility of the regime?

Israel and the pro-Israel lobby are less vocal now about the threat of an Islamist takeover in part because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is deeply invested in the informal alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, said Douglas Bloomfield, a political columnist who in the 1980s was a top AIPAC lobbyist.

ISRAEL’S QUALITATIVE MILITARY EDGE

It’s long been pro-Israel doctrine that an Israeli military capability sufficient to defeat enemies is not enough, that there needs to be enough of a gap between Israel’s capabilities and those of its enemies to prevent an outbreak of war.

In 1982, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Moshe Arens, bluntly warned that the arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states would “erase” Israel’s qualitative military edge.

After Trump announced the new sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel’s energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, delivered a similar warning.

But Steinitz’s statement was an outlier. Two factors have changed since the 1980s: The Soviet Union, a major arms supplier to Israel’s enemies, is gone; and maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge has been a matter of U.S. law since 2008— Israel has recourse to Congress if there is any concern.

AMERICAN JOBS

The boost that arms sales would deliver to the U.S. economy is a key feature of the pitch to sell arms to the Saudis, as it was in the early ’80s.

THE PRO-ISRAEL LOBBY

AIPAC stood up to a popular and recently elected president in the early 1980s. Why is it reticent to take on an unpopular and recently elected president in 2017?

For one thing, AIPAC 35 years ago had a Democratic U.S. House of Representatives eager to take on a Republican president. This time, the White House and both houses of Congress are Republican. Moreover, after two years of tensions between AIPAC and the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal, AIPAC is only now gingerly rebuilding its ties with the Democratic Party. 

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