US concerned over Saudi weapon deal's impact on Israel

House members seek conditions to prevent arms being used against Israel; 198 representatives voice complaints about Saudi policies.

November 17, 2010 05:55
2 minute read.
F-15 warplanes of the Saudi Air Force

Saudi plane deal 311. (photo credit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is demanding more assurances from the Obama administration that a record $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia won’t give the kingdom new military capabilities that threaten Israel.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, 198 representatives voiced a range of complaints about Saudi policies, and said they “would like to know how these sales will affect Israel’s qualitative military edge.”

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House members aren’t likely to block the deal, officials said, but would like conditions applied to the sales to try to prevent the weaponry from potentially being used against Israel, US or allied forces.

Lawmakers noted, for example, that the administration could require modifications in aircraft guidance systems and other electronics to make it harder for the weapons to be used against Israeli targets. The US also could require that the aircraft be based in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, to provide Israel time to prepare for defense in the event of an attack, lawmakers said.

The letter was primarily the work of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., and ranking minority committee member US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who signed the letter, said he was optimistic that the administration will be able to meet the lawmakers’ requests because of the leverage provided by the deal.

“This giant weapons sale is obviously critical to Saudi national security,” he said.

The deal would allow the Saudi government to buy up to 84 new F-15 fighters, to upgrade 70 more, and to purchase attack helicopters and satellite-guided bombs.

The administration has said the sales are aimed at helping the Saudis deter military aggression by Iran, which is expected to become more assertive if it ultimately succeeds in its quest for nuclear weapons know-how.

The United States has long sought to assure, in weighing military sales in the Middle East, that Israel would retain a qualitative military edge.

Israel hasn’t objected to the sales, although they have been discussed by US and Israeli defense officials.

The group of lawmakers raising questions included both liberal and conservative members, and the letter faulted several Saudi policies. They complained that Riyadh has not moved to normalize relations with Israel, has lagged on financial support to the Palestinian Authority and has not done enough to try to pressure Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons program.

Administration officials have said they didn’t expect Congress to block the arms sales.

The administration is also promising Israel $3 billion worth of jet fighter sales as part of a deal to win its support for a 90- day freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.

Administration officials hope the freeze can open the way to a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

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