Pro-israel Groups Study New Plan to Sell Saudis $6.7 Billion in Arms

Supporters of Israel on Capitol Hill are studying a revised proposal the Bush administration announced Thursday to sell Saudi Arabia $6.7 billion worth of sophisticated weapons.

Pro-Israel lawmakers and activists have not decided yet whether to try to block components of the package, which is the first stage of a $21 billion arms sale the administration envisions.

When the administration floated the original $21 billion proposed sale on Capitol Hill last week, lawmakers objected to its unprecedented scale. Seeking to avoid a showdown, the administration agreed to defer most of the major hardware in the proposed package until after the new Congress convenes in January.

The White House has indicated that the next phase of the sale could include F-15 fighter planes. But the contents of that package have not been concluded, pending further developments in the Persian Gulf crisis.

“Everyone acknowledges that come January, things are going to look very different in the Gulf,” said a pro-Israel analyst. “Nobody knows what that difference is going to be, so there are no hard-and-fast commitments.”

Supporters of Israel are concerned that sending billions of dollars worth of new weaponry to Saudi Arabia could one day pose a serious military threat to Israel.

Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.) said during a congressional hearing last week that the $21 billion package proposed at the time would not only erode Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East, but actually “erase” it.

IMMEDIATE NEED QUESTIONED

Jewish groups and pro-Israel lawmakers said then that in order to offset the $21 billion package, Israel would need a wide range of new U.S. military aid.

Israel’s supporters are less likely to object to the smaller sale, especially if it is partially offset by additional military aid for Israel.

Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the umbrella group has yet to decide how to approach the revised Saudi package.

“If Israel’s qualitative edge is met, then that may set aside” the conference’s concern about the Saudi package, Reich said.

“On the other hand, there is always a danger when the United States transfers weapons of such magnitude to a nation that is still technically at war with Israel,” he said.

Some lawmakers have also criticized the package for not adequately siphoning out those items that are not immediately of use to the Saudis in defending against an Iraqi attack.

“If they can make a convincing case that the items are needed immediately, they will not face opposition,” Levine was quoted by The New York Times as saying.

But among the items included in the package are 200 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 150 M1-A2 Abrams tanks, which would take 18 and 36 months respectively to deliver, the pro-Israel analyst estimated.

Still, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams defended the $6.7 billion Saudi package Thursday as “all Desert Shield-related,” using the code word for the U.S. military operation in the Persian Gulf.

Another conceivable tactic for pro-Israel lawmakers is to try to block only those weapons that to Israel represent a significant offensive threat. These would include the nine multiple-launch rocket systems in the new proposal, the analyst said.

The Pentagon had no new U.S. arms package for Israel to announce Thursday, but a senior Defense Department official told Congress last week he expects one to be proposed soon.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens reportedly agreed in principle when they met here earlier this month that the United States would sell, lease or give Israel 15 F-16 fighter planes, 10 cargo helicopters and two Patriot missile batteries with compatible missiles.

Cheney met Thursday with a 50-member delegation from the Conference of Presidents, as did Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brent Scowcroft, President Bush’s national security adviser.

Reich said the group brought “a message of concern as to whether Israel’s security needs were being met and concern about the quantity of arms being sold to Saudi Arabia.”

The group was “assured by all of the administration spokesmen,” Reich said, “that Israel’s continued security is of utmost concern to the United States and that they would not permit Israel’s security to be jeopardized.”

But Reich expressed disappointment with the group’s “inability to get specifics from the administration about the package that they were preparing to give to Israel.”

Reich said the group felt the administration should meet Israel’s needs “to the fullest extent possible. We were concerned they were not.”

NEXT STORY