Behind the Headlines: Picking Which Arms Sales to Fight Made More Difficult by Gulf Crisis

For supporters of Israel, deciding whether or not to fight proposed U.S. arms sales to Arab countries has become increasingly complicated in recent years and never more difficult than during the Persian Gulf crisis.

Countering White House claims that such sales are in the interests of U.S. foreign policy has never been an easy task. But fighting arms sales became even more difficult when the Reagan administration began touting them for domestic benefits, maintaining that they create jobs and help to reduce the mammoth U.S. trade deficit.

“It is a very serious thing to take on an administration and ask American industry to forego certain jobs,” Stephen Silbiger said in 1988, when he was Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress.

That year saw Britain undertake a massive arms sale of $30 billion to Saudi Arabia, after the Saudis were rebuffed in their attempt to gain sophisticated weaponry from the United States.

At the time, some questioned whether the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill had pursued a wise strategy in fighting a sale of weapons the Saudis ultimately got elsewhere, with fewer controls and restrictions on usage.

In principle, American Jewish groups, like Israel, oppose all arms sales to Arab countries except Egypt. But they decide on a case-by-case basis whether to actively fight a proposed U.S. sale, based on the circumstances at the time.

And in fact, Jewish groups do not seek to block most U.S. arms sales to Arab countries, according to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. An AIPAC official said the pro-Israel has actively fought only 10 percent of the total amount of arms sold by the United States to Arab countries over the last decade.

$15 BILLION PACKAGE EXPECTED

The Gulf crisis has posed the ultimate challenge for the pro-Israel community, for the stakes are especially high.

Blocking a major U.S. arms sale to an Arab country could upset the international coalition against Iraq. But allowing such a sale to pass could dramatically alter the military balance in the Middle East, at a time when the Jewish state is more vulnerable to attack than ever.

It is this dilemma that the Jewish community and its congressional allies may face in early 1991, when the Bush administration is expected to send Congress a proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia totaling $15 billion.

The proposed sale includes highly objectionable new AWACS surveillance planes that could significantly erode Israel’s air superiority over any array of Arab countries.

Despite the fact that much of the $15 billion in weaponry cannot be delivered until years down the road, the administration is expected to use the argument that the sale is essential while Saudi Arabia is cooperating with U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.

President Bush warned the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in November that he would do “whatever he believed necessary to protect the troops in the desert,” including to “go to the American people to sell the package,” said Seymour Reich, out-going chairman of the umbrella group.

In early September, a month after Iraq invaded Kuwait, major U.S. Jewish groups, including AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents, agreed not to oppose a $6.7 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia or plans to forgive Egypt’s $7.3 billion military debt to the United States.

DEAL CRITICIZED BY SOME SENATORS

In return, Israel would get an arms package of its own, including 15 F-15 fighters, 10 helicopters, two missile batteries, $100 million in munitions, and the possibility of receiving $700 million in excess U.S. weaponry at Bush’s discretion.

The compromise — hammered out by such key senators as Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), Robert Kasten (R-Wis.) and Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) — was less harmful to Israel than an original $20 billion package for the Saudis floated by Bush.

But other key Senate supporters of Israel felt that the Jewish community should not have weighed in on the deal, which they said did not provide enough “offsets” for Israel. These senators felt that by refusing to fight the sale, the Jewish community made it impossible for them to bring the Saudi arms proposal to a vote.

“Once the administration was able to link the additional military aid for Israel to the Saudi package and the Egyptian debt relief, it was impossible to defeat the Saudi arms sale,” Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“You cannot on the one hand accept a proposal that will provide Israel with additional military capability and then on the very same token oppose the other parts of the package.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told JTA he expressed “flat-out opposition” to both the $20 billion and the $6.7 billion packages when consulted about the deal.

“I was prepared to join in leading the fight against the arms sale in any amount,” he said. “I don’t believe any concessions should be made on the Saudi arms sale whether it be won or lost.”

Specter said the possibility of a fight “faded when Israel got $700 million in arms. That’s what undercut it.”

AIPAC PLANS TO FIGHT NEXT ROUND

There were also signs of readiness to fight the sale in the House, where in just two days, 100 lawmakers signed a resolution of disapproval, sponsored by Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.).

Reich said the Conference of Presidents backed the compromise after realizing it could not muster the necessary 67 votes in the Senate to override the veto Bush would surely give a resolution to block the arms package.

He called it “regrettable” if members of Congress thought they could have defeated the $6.7 billion package. “They might have shared that with us at the time if they knew what was going on,” he said.

But the Jewish community is not expected to be as ready to go along with the $15 billion, which is expected to be announced shortly after the new Congress convenes in January.

AIPAC Executive Director Thomas Dine has staked out an early position to oppose the sale with full force.

But Reich indicated that should there not be a sufficient number of lawmakers to override a presidential veto, the Conference of Presidents would likely support a compromise once again.

NEXT STORY