Postponement of Saudi Arms Sale Welcomed by Supporters of Israel

Israel’s supporters on Capitol Hill are relieved at the Bush administration’s decision to delay proposing to Congress a massive arms package for Saudi Arabia until after the Persian Gulf crisis has ended.

Saudi Arabia and the United States “have agreed not to proceed at this time” with the sale, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, Richard Boucher, announced Friday.

He said Secretary of State James Baker had informed members of Congress of the decision the day before.

The scrapped arms sale, valued at up to $15 billion, was to have been the second phase of an unprecedented $21 billion arms package the Bush administration proposed last fall, after Saudi Arabia agreed to allow U.S. troops to operate on its soil.

But lawmakers balked at the plan, so the administration agreed to split it into two chunks. The first piece, totaling some $6.7 billion in military equipment, sailed through Congress without any recorded vote to disapprove it.

However, pro-Israel lawmakers had expressed strong reservations about the second phase, which the administration had been expected to propose soon after the new Congress convened last week.

They argued that an arms sale of such magnitude would alter the military balance in the Middle East against Israel while doing little to bolster Saudi security during the Gulf crisis. Since most weaponry takes years to produce, any new sale of arms to the Saudis would likely not be delivered for years down the road.

While Boucher of the State Department maintained Friday that “strong Saudi defense forces are an important element in regional stability,” he acknowledged that “resolution of the Gulf crisis is our first priority.”

NOT DEFEATED FOR GOOD

The Bush administration “clearly did not want to have a fight at this time,” said one Senate staffer.

But a State Department official said the delay is not a direct result of congressional opposition or any Saudi uncertainties about what weaponry will serve the kingdom best.

Rather, the decision was made primarily in light of the U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning the use of force to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait if they do not leave by Jan. 15.

“It’s just a question of prioritizing things,” the official said.

President Bush, in a short exchange with reporters Friday afternoon, also alluded to the Jan. 15 date as a prime reason for the delay, saying the Saudis “have got to satisfy themselves on the timing here.”

While Jewish groups and pro-Israel forces on Capitol Hill are relieved at the postponement, they do not seem to feel the arms package has been defeated for good.

“I’m not sure that anyone thinks of this other than as a postponement,” said the Senate aide.

But he said his boss’s reasons for leaning toward opposing any new large arms sales to the Saudis “really wouldn’t change” if and when the crisis is resolved.

Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “It’s good that the arms sale was delayed. But it should be delayed far beyond the resolution of the Gulf crisis.”

Mark Pelavin, the American Jewish Congress’ Washington representative, also praised the postponement. “To the extent that it decouples a major Saudi arms sale from the current crisis, it’s a wise step,” he said.

He said that only after the crisis can there be a legitimate debate over Saudi defense needs.

The $15 billion package “clearly wasn’t about current needs,” he said.

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