Jerusalem is not thrilled with a huge arms deal materializing between the US and Saudi Arabia. As part of the $60 billion 10-year package, the Saudis will reportedly be receiving 70 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 60 Longbow Apache attack helicopters, 84 Boeing F-15s and upgrades for older combat planes, as well as flight simulators, spare parts and long-term support for the planes. In addition, Kuwait wants the latest Patriot missile defense system, and Oman might be buying 18 F-16 fighter jets.
From an Israeli perspective, the deals are highly problematic. Washington’s intention is to build up the Gulf states’ confidence in the face of an increasingly belligerent Iran. But these fighter planes can just as soon be used against the Jewish state as against the Islamic Republic. The present Saudi regime seems stable. But what would happen in the event of a coup d’etat or if a rogue pilot went wild?
Still, Israel is not expected to oppose the deal, for a variety of reasons. The F-15s being sold to the Saudis will not be equipped with standoff systems – long-range missiles to be used against land and sea targets. Also, the US and Israel may clinch a deal for the sale of about 20 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, which would help us maintain an uncontested military edge. In addition, US lawmakers can always hold up parts of the deal or seek assurances that Israel’s core military interests will be protected when all the details of the sale are presented to Congress next month. And if the US does not sell to the Gulf states, EU countries or even Russia, which are much less receptive to Israeli interests, might fill the vacuum.
It is also worth noting that military cooperation between the US and Israel is at its peak. This month, for instance, the two countries conducted their largest-ever joint infantry exercise in Israel. Since his appointment in 2007, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen has visited Israel four times. US military aid is expected to reach a new high of $3b. in 2011, and the Obama administration has already committed itself to the $205 million Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system to protect cities neighboring Hamas-controlled Gaza.
But there is one further reason Israel will most likely not oppose the deal. Riyadh and Jerusalem, while hardly allies, share a common enemy in Teheran. The Islamic Republic is threatening to tip the delicate balance of power in the region by attaining nuclear capability. Differences between the Gulf states and Israel, however acute, pale in comparison.
TO FULLY appreciate the change in relations between Israel and the
Saudis, it is instructive to revisit the 1981 AWAC surveillance planes
deal. It was only through the sheer force of his personality that the
newly elected US president Ronald Reagan managed to push the deal
through Congress. The Saudis were a central supporter of the PLO and
other terror organizations. US assurances that the deal would not hurt
Israel’s military edge were rejected by prime minister Menachem Begin,
who had just presided over the air strike against Saddam Hussein’s
nuclear reactor at Osirak. The Jewish lobby, which fought the AWACs
deal, was accused of putting Israeli interests before the US Cold War
imperative of blocking Soviet expansion in Afghanistan, Yemen and
Ethiopia and protecting American oil interests in the Gulf after the
fall of the shah in Iran.
In contrast, today, the US, Israel and the Saudis are on the same page
as far as Iran is concerned. In fact, the Gulf states seem the most
gung-ho about stopping Iran. The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to
Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, estimated publicly a few weeks ago (before
he backtracked under pressure) that bombing Iran was preferable to an
Iranian bomb. A few months ago, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud
al-Faisal said sanctions were not enough.
Nonetheless, while the mooted arms deal might reflect geopolitical
changes in the area, it is no substitute for the determined action
necessary to thwart an intransigent, saber-rattling Iran.
The question remains whether, if the current sanctions effort does not
quickly bear fruit, America will take more concrete moves to stop Iran
or ultimately remain passive. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a challenge
to this region – as the US evidently recognizes, and the latest arms
packages underline – and to the free world. It should not have to fall
to Israel to act alone on behalf of Saudi-US-Israeli interests.