The organized American Jewish community is strongly urging President Bush not to allow Saudi Arabia to buy as many as 72 sophisticated F-15 fighter aircraft from the United States.
But the community has not decided what course of action to take if the president decides to go ahead with the sale, valued at $5 billion.
The president is legally required to give Congress 30 days’ notice of an arms sale and the chance to vote it down. Sources say formal notification of the sale could come within the next week.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations warned that such a sale “would erode Israel’s qualitative edge, upset the military balance in the region and necessarily intensify the Middle East arms race.”
The prospective sale was also opposed by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. Its chair, Maynard Wishner of Chicago, urged Bush in a letter to delay its submission to Congress and to “work instead to implement the guidelines that you yourself proposed requiring restraint in the production and supply of arms to the Middle East.”
Both groups also asked Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton to oppose such a sale.
But neither the NJCRAC letters nor the carefully worded Conference of Presidents statement said whether the Jewish community would mount a lobbying campaign against the sale if it is submitted to Congress.
Such a fight could mean another bruising battle between the administration and American Jewry, this time right before the presidential election.
“We’ll determine our reaction when we’re cognizant of the details of the package and its implications,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reportedly said that on his recent trip to Washington, he found members of Congress unwilling to fight a Saudi sale.
“I don’t like lost battles,” he was quoted as saying, implying that he is unwilling to engage in a high-profile battle over the issue a month before the U.S. election.
Earlier this week, reports in the Israeli press suggested Israel would drop its opposition to the sale if the United States persuaded the Saudis to lift the Arab boycott against Israel. According to the reports, Israel views the F-15 sale as a “done deal.”
A sale of 72 F-15s would nearly double the number of F-15s in the fleet of the Royal Saudi Air Force.
Even more worrisome to pro-Israel activists is that the model reportedly under consideration for the sale is significantly more advanced than the 50 F-15s in the Israeli air force.
Precisely which version of the F-15 is offered to the Saudis will likely play a major role in the debate over the sale.
Democratic nominee Clinton has stated that under the right circumstances, an F- 15 sale to Saudi Arabia would not affect Israel’s security and should be approved.
But the Arkansas governor has also said he opposes arms sales to Arab states that would endanger Israel’s strategic edge, citing in particular the role of high-tech enhancements. He has said he would consult Israel about assessing its security needs.
These points were reiterated in a telephone call that Democratic vice presidential candidate Al Gore Jr. made to the Conference of Presidents on Wednesday.
At a meeting of the conference Wednesday, there was “a general feeling of anger and frustration about the sale,” according to Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chair of NJCRAC.
“In many ways, an arms sale to Saudi Arabia is being used as a jobs bill. We like to see jobs, but this is very problematic in terms of U.S. foreign policy,” he said.
“The principle point we’re trying to make,” he said, “is it is possible to reconcile foreign policy interests and full employment.”