Pro-israel Forces Ready to Fight Any Sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia

The pro-Israel community, still smarting from a bruising battle with the Bush administration over loan guarantees, has put the White House on notice that it will fight any attempt to sell Saudi Arabia 72 advanced F-15 fighter planes this year.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said such a sale, valued around $5 billion, would be “destabilizing” to a degree not equaled by past U.S. sales to Saudi Arabia.

“We intend to fight anything that shifts the balance further against Israel,” said Hoenlein, who also urged the administration to try to deter a $34 billion British arms sale to the Saudis announced this week.

Similarly, Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “The pro-Israel community would work hard to oppose that kind of a sale.”

The first salvo in that battle came Thursday, when 237 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Bush expressing concern about any such sale. Bush received a similar letter from 67 senators last year, when talk of an F-15s sale first surfaced.

The F-15s were included on a Bush administration list of possible arms sales that was sent to Congress in January. In February, the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, requested the planes in a letter to U.S. Ambassador Charles Freeman in Saudi Arabia.

MCDONNELL DOUGLAS LOBBYING HARD

While the administration has not yet notified Congress even informally of plans to sell the Saudis the F-15s, momentum for such a sale has picked up in recent weeks.

In particular, the St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Corp., which makes the F-15s, has mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign, arguing that such a sale would create thousands of jobs to help the ailing U.S. economy.

But a pro-Israel lobbyist said the Bush administration would have to receive a more definitive request from Saudi King Fahd before it would consider sending the proposal to Congress, which can block arms sales with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

The administration reportedly is trying to dissuade Fahd from making the request, in order to avoid a fight with Congress while both the U.S. election campaign and the Middle East peace process are in full swing.

But should Fahd decide to go ahead with a more formal request, the administration would not “want to say no to Saudi Arabia,” the pro-Israel lobbyist said.

Unlike the Royal Saudi Air Force, Fahd is “not convinced these are really needed for the defense of Saudi Arabia,” the lobbyist said.

While the Saudi air force is used to having the “shiniest toys” to defend the kingdom, Fahd does not see their need in the absence of a significant threat from Iraq or Iran, the lobbyist said.

The administration said recently that an arms proposal for the Saudis is “not imminent.”

That was unusual, insofar as the administration usually does not comment on the timing of future arms sales. The government appears to be particularly sensitive now given the evolving peace process begun last October.

Hoenlein said it would be ludicrous to go forward with such a sale when multilateral talks on Middle East arms control are slated to begin in Washington on May 11.

‘INCOMPATIBLE’ WITH ARMS CONTROL

Any U.S. sale to Saudi Arabia would “undermine U.S. diplomacy and pressure for restraint” on the part of countries in Eastern Europe that have been leading arms producers in the past, the pro-Israel lobbyist said.

The administration has been trying to persuade these formerly Communist countries to abandon or at least scale down arms sales to the Middle East and other regions.

“The sale of additional F-15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia is incompatible with any meaningful arms control policy,” the members of Congress said in their letter Thursday to Bush. Such a sale would represent “a significant escalation of the regional arms race,” they said.

The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.), may have been motivated in part by a desire on the part of some lawmakers to “show their colors” for Israel after Congress failed to win loan guarantees for Jewish state on terms it found acceptable.

Another such show of support came Thursday when Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and nine colleagues wrote to Secretary of States James Baker urging him to withhold $77 million in aid earmarked for Jordan this year.

They contended it would be “an unconscionable act” to provide the aid when Jordan violated the U.N. embargo against Iraq by providing “weapons and supplies” during and after the Persian Gulf War.

Jewish groups have generally not tried to block aid to Jordan out of fear of destabilizing King Hussein, whom Israel considers a better neighbor than other potential Jordanian rulers.

Hoenlein said D’Amato’s letter “reflects the mood in Congress of anger and frustration at the administration’s actions” during the fight for loan guarantees.

WILL JOBS ISSUE BE USED?

Some pro-Israel sources suggested that the administration’s refusal to support the loan guarantees would make it difficult for the White House to use the jobs issue as a means of attracting congressional support for the F-15s sale.

Pro-Israel activists argued to no avail that the loan guarantees would have created thousands of jobs in the U.S. housing industry, since part of the $10 billion in loan money would have been used to purchase housing for immigrants from the former Soviet republics.

In a meeting with McDonnell Douglas officials last week, Hoenlein said he argued that the loan guarantees would have created more jobs than a sale of 72 F-15s to Saudi Arabia.

McDonnell Douglas’ lobbying literature argues that 40,000 U.S. defense jobs would be at stake in the Saudi sale.

But Amnon Neubach, the Israeli economics minister in Washington, said U.S. economists estimate that the loan guarantees would have created 40,000 new jobs in the United States.

The possible sale to the Saudis also come under fire recently from a 24-member coalition of U.S. religious, public interest and peace groups.

The coalition sent a letter to all members of the Senate and House accusing the administration of fostering “arms races in precarious regions.”

The only Jewish group signing the letter was the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

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