Behind the Headlines: U.s.-israeli Strategic Relationship Still Vibrant Despite Saudi Arms Sale
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Behind the Headlines: U.s.-israeli Strategic Relationship Still Vibrant Despite Saudi Arms Sale

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Israel does not have to worry about an erosion in long-term U.S. strategic cooperation and support, despite the impending sale of 72 advanced F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, according to experts appearing at a recent Senate symposium.

The sale, which American Jewish groups did not actively oppose, will soon become official because Congress adjourned last week without opposing it.

Although concerned about the sale, Israel was mollified somewhat when President Bush recently pledged the United States would give the Jewish state a package of Apache and Black Hawk helicopters and Harpoon missiles as compensation.

The implications of the sale were discussed at a recent one-day conference, entitled “U.S.-Israel Security Relations Toward the Year 2000.” It featured seven speakers, mostly present and former Pentagon and National Security Council officials, who spoke on the military threat to Israel and initiatives to bolster U.S.-Israeli military cooperation.

The session was sponsored by the bipartisan Senate Caucus on U.S.-Israel Security Cooperation, which is chaired by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Richard Shelby (D-Ala.).

Carl Ford Jr., who presently serves as deputy assistant secretary of defense for both international security affairs and Near East and South Asian affairs, admitted that the sale to the Saudis won’t be “neutral” in terms of its effects in the region. But he maintained that Israel will still hold a qualitative military edge.

“We believe the sale is in everyone’s best interest,” he said.

Ford also spoke optimistically about the future of U.S.-Israeli military relations, despite the end of the Cold War, which some viewed as the main context for the close cooperation. “A lot of people had begun to think of U.S.- Israeli strategic relations very narrowly” in the context of the conflict with the Soviet Union, he said.

“That never really was the heart of our relationship with Israel. It does a disservice to both the U.S. and to Israel,” he said, “to focus on that one narrow part of our relationship. The fact is that our relationship is grounded in something more substantial than simply foreign policy.”

Ford spoke of an “active partnership” between the two countries’ militaries, referring to jointly run weapons development programs and the “phenomenal number of daily visits” to Israel made by U.S. military personnel. “The dialogue and the physical contact between the U.S. and Israeli military is quite substantial,” he said.

Anthony Cordesman, a legislative assistant to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as well as an ABC News military consultant, spoke about the three types of threats that Israel now faces in the post-Cold War era — direct, indirect and internal — and how the United States may be able to help reduce them.

The first type of threat, the direct threat, is the clearest: Excepting Egypt, Israel’s neighbors are all hostile to varying degrees, and are still technically in a state of war with Israel, Cordesman said.

But even Egypt is potentially a very serious threat, he said, because of the political instability of its leader, Hosni Mubarak. His tenuous political position is due to his failure to implement “meaningful economic reforms,” he said.

Mubarak is therefore more reliant than ever on U.S. economic aid, which, Cordesman warned, must not end, lest his government fall and unfriendly elements take charge.

Proliferation is also a direct threat to Israel, Cordesman said. Weapons Israel may face in the near future include ballistic and cruise missiles, higher numbers of long-range strike aircraft, and “much improved” electronic warfare and air-to-surface missile capabilities.

Cordesman also believes that radical Arab states, as well as Iran, will be able to attain delivery systems for chemical and biological weapons, which would be potentially far more accurate and deadly than the Scud missiles used by Iraq against Israel during the Persian Gulf War.

The specter of failed peace talks, which are scheduled to resume here Oct. 21, is also “something that you cannot dismiss,” said Cordesman, referring to a possible resumption of terrorist activities and an invigorated intifada.

“There is still a constant, very intense, radical effort within Gaza and the West Bank that does present a threat,” he said.

And ironically, Cordesman views the United States as a potential threat against Israel, for two basic reasons. First, to sustain its military edge, Israel “must, for the indefinite future, have roughly the same level of military assistance it has today,” he said. If that level of support drops, Israel could find itself losing its military edge in the region.

The second possible threat might come from the United States in the form of insistence on concessions in the ongoing peace talks. “If we pressure Israel for the wrong kind of peace, we would be a threat,” he said.

Indirect threats, Cordesman argued, include increased Islamic fundamentalism, arms dumping by both the Eastern bloc countries and the West, and the potential long-term development of nuclear weapons.

Cordesman said one current problem Israel faces internally is redefining the defense industry in the wake of changing regional political conditions. But the most important internal dilemma Israel faces, he said, is that of producing a viable and vibrant economy for the longer term.

“It is Israel’s economic heritage and anachronisms which are more of a threat to the capabilities of the Israel Defense Force than any single Arab country,” he said.

Also speaking at the morning session of the symposium were Howard Teicher, former National Security Council director for Near East and South Asian affairs, and Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Three former Pentagon officials, all of whom served in the Reagan administration, spoke at the afternoon session, which was entitled “Strategic Overviews.”

They were Frank Gaffney, former assistant secretary of defense for international security policy; Steve Bryen, who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for trade security policy; and Doug Feith, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy.

Sens. Specter and Shelby, who are both up for re-election this year, founded the Senate caucus in March, in order to “explore avenues that will mutually enhance United States and Israeli defense preparedness in a changing and volatile global environment,” according to a letter sent to Senate colleagues.

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