Saudi arms deal likely to go through

President Bush, with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia at the president's Texas ranch in April 2002,  is proposing a multibillion-dollar arms sale package to the Saudis. (Photo by Tina Hager)

President Bush, with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia at the president’s Texas ranch in April 2002, is proposing a multibillion-dollar arms sale package to the Saudis. (Photo by Tina Hager)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – An effort led by Jewish Democrats in Congress to block the Bush administration’s planned sale of arms to Saudi Arabia is bound to fail because it is opposed by one of the top-ranked Jews in Congress.

Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) asked colleagues to sign on to a letter to Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, asking him to convene the committee to block the arms sale.

“Chairman Lantos does not intend to ask the committee to consider any resolutions of disapproval on this matter,” Lantos spokeswoman Lynne Weill told JTA on Tuesday when asked about the letter.

The Bush administration on Monday formally announced the proposed $120 million sale of 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The announcement was timed for the Saudi leg of President Bush’s Middle East tour. Congress has 30 days to reject the sale.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the sale brought to $11.5 billion proposed deals with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors. More sales could be in the offing, as Bush anticipated $20 billion when he first announced the proposal last July.

Bush made the sale a centerpiece of his administration’s efforts to create an alliance that would confront Iranian hegemony in the region and bolster his bid for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of this year.

This agenda featured prominently in his eight-day trip to the region, which began in Israel and ended this week with stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The JDAMs, components that add deadly accuracy to long-range missiles, had been the most controversial element of the weapons sale.

“The proposed sale will greatly improve the accuracy of unguided, general-purpose bombs in any weather condition. enabling the Royal Saudi Air Force’s (RSAF) F-15S aircraft to participate to a greater degree in coalition operations,” the Pentagon said in its announcement.

It was precisely that accuracy that concerned Weiner, Wexler and their co-signatories.

“Given the time-sensitive nature of the resolution, and our grave reservations with Saudi Arabia acquiring Joint Direct Attack Munition technology, we urge the Committee to take up the resolution and explore the implications of the sale,” the letter to Lantos said.

Aside from Wexler and Weiner, Jewish signatories included Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.).

The letter was signed as well by leading members of the left wing of the Democratic Caucus, who would oppose such a deal because they see Saudi Arabia as perhaps the least savory ally to the United States, noting its repression of women and minorities. Chief among them was Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the long-shot candidate for the Democratic presidential candidacy.

As of Tuesday morning, 16 lawmakers had signed the letter. It was not immediately clear whether more had signed on after the letter’s noon deadline.

Foes of the sale need to run their opposition through a committee. Lantos, perhaps Israel’s best friend among committee chairmen, was seen as their their best chance.

In a statement last June, Lantos suggested that he would support the sale because it would help contain the Iranian threat.

“We welcome the development that the Saudis and other Gulf states have recognized that a nuclear weapons-equipped Iran is a mortal threat to them,” Lantos, Congress’ only Holocaust survivor, said at the time.

Israel and pro-Israel groups were wary of the sale, fearing that the arms could fall into hostile hands in the event of upheaval in Saudi Arabia. Given the opaque nature of the Saudi regime, its stability has always been a matter of guessing in the West.

McCormack sought to assuage such concerns.

“Saudi Arabia, in its efforts to fight terrorism, whether that is going after the cells, picking up individuals, breaking up the financial networks, has made quantum leaps from where it was in 2001,” he said. “They have realized that this is a threat to them as well as to their close friends and allies.”

Top Israelis, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, gave the sale their blessing after representations by U.S. officials. Reported sweeteners included guarantees that the JDAMs would be programmed not to include Israel as a target.

McCormack did not directly address how the technology was made safe for Israel, but acknowledged that it was part of the discussion.

“It’s an issue that we have talked to the Saudi government about, we’ve talked to the Israeli government about, and we’ve worked quite closely with the Hill on this,” he said. “I think we’ve been working with the Hill on this particular issue for pretty close to a year almost. And it’s – we’ve spent a lot of time ensuring that we abide by our commitments to a qualitative military edge, QME, for Israel.”

The sale, the Pentagon statement said, “will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that has been and continues to be an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”

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