Behind the Headlines: Few Objections Greet U.S. Plan to Peddle Arms to the Middle East
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Behind the Headlines: Few Objections Greet U.S. Plan to Peddle Arms to the Middle East

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The United States has once again opened up an arms bazaar in the Middle East.

And while Israel and most Jewish groups have not raised objections to the proposal, some Middle East analysts worry that the proposed arms sales threaten to erode the “qualitative edge” the Israeli military enjoys over its neighbors.

Defense Secretary William Cohen last week pledged to sell $3.2 billion worth of state-of-the-art fighter planes, tanks and Patriot missiles to Egypt, as well as sophisticated air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

The proposed new sales, which are likely to be approved by Congress, came as Cohen toured nine nations in the Persian Gulf and Middle East to discuss security threats from Iraq and Iran.

Although the United States has sold Egypt and other Arab nations a wide range of weaponry in the past — and annually earmarks some $1.2 billion in military aid to Egypt — the peddling of the most sophisticated weapons in the U.S. arsenal has prompted criticism from defense hawks.

“It puts Israel in greater and greater jeopardy,” Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said of the proposed sale to Egypt.

“Essentially it just notches up their arsenal to a higher technological level. Eventually it’s going to be so immense and so cumbersome that it’s going to precipitate a war in the Middle East.”

Others downplay the significance.

“There’s nothing new about this, they’ve been doing this for years,” said Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“These are countries which have been supportive of the peace process and have their own defense requirements,” Eisenstadt said, adding that “under different circumstances these sales would be of concern, but not under current circumstances.”

Asked to comment on the proposed sale to Egypt, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to his country’s 20-year-old peace accord with Egypt, which he said “involved the shifting of Egypt away from Soviet arms to Western arms, American arms, and that has been an agreed-upon arrangement.”

The absence of an audible outcry from the American Jewish community in recent years to these types of sales stands in contrast to the bitter confrontations with the Reagan and Bush administrations during the 1980s over arms sales to the Arab world.

The new alliances created during the Persian Gulf War and Israel’s signing of peace agreements have changed the facts on the ground, analysts say.

“The Gulf War demonstrated that the Saudis and Gulf states are vulnerable to aggressive Arab regimes in the region and that they do have legitimate military and security needs that need to be met,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella body of Jewish groups.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, has taken no position on the new arms sales, but intends to look at them carefully “within the context of what it does to Israel’s qualitative edge,” a spokesman said.

The Clinton administration, for its part, has rejected criticism that it is fueling an arms race in the Middle East, defending the moves as an important means of helping its allies in the region meet legitimate needs for military modernization.

During his trip, Cohen told reporters that Egypt would “feel insulted” if its request for weapons were denied and might turn to other arms suppliers.

“There are many potential suppliers — Russian, Chinese, French, British and others that seek to fulfill their requests,” he said. “I think that they would look very skeptically upon our friendship and very strong partnership if we were to say, `I’m sorry, we have made a decision that is superior to your decision. You don’t need this and you shouldn’t have it.'”

He added that a strong military relationship between the United States and Egypt remains an important part of maintaining strong political and diplomatic ties that can help build peace and stability in the region.

In Israel, Cohen pledged to maintain Israel’s “qualitative edge” and held out the prospect of additional U.S. funding for the $1.6 billion Arrow missile project designed to help Israel thwart any ballistic missile attacks.

Cohen said he was looking at ways to fund research and development of a third battery for the Arrow, an Israeli-produced missile system jointly funded by Washington.

Despite U.S. assurances that the strategic balance in the region will not be affected by the new sales, some analysts believe that transferring advanced weapons systems to Egypt may not ultimately be in Israel’s interests.

“Who does Egypt need weapons to defend themselves against?” said Mitchell Bard, a foreign policy analyst.

“They have no legitimate defensive need, so the arms are only likely to be used offensively” against Israel, he said, adding that the U.S. taxpayer will be footing the bill.

Another defense analyst who asked not to be identified, however, said the Egyptian sale “fits the model that the United States has been following with Egypt over the years in terms of selling defensive weaponry.”

The sale to Saudi Arabia of advanced air-to-air missiles, however, “is potentially significant” because “it delivers a new capability,” the analyst said, adding that “we’ll have to see” what the administration does “to make sure that Israel’s qualitative edge in maintained.”

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