WASHINGTON (JTA) – A top Democrat and a top Republican are promising intense congressional scrutiny of President Bush’s proposal for a massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.
“The United States relies on its only democratic ally in the Middle East, and that’s Israel, the only ally that’s in sync with U.S. interests,” Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the deputy minority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, told JTA, saying he wanted to examine the deal before signing on.
Speaking Monday, just after returning from leading a tour of Israel and the Palestinian areas with 18 of his colleagues, Cantor added: “We ought to make sure our ally in the region maintains a qualitative military edge.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who is returning Saturday from leading an 18-person Democratic delegation to Israel, is also promising to raise questions about the proposed Saudi arms deal.
Hoyer told JTA that his thinking on the Saudi package – reportedly involving $20 billion in equipment, including devices that invest commonplace missiles with deadly accuracy – is being colored by a recent report about the disappearance of tens of thousands of supplies sent by the United States to Iraqi forces.
“We’ve seen recent examples where large arms caches have been lost, and we now think those weapons might have been used against Americans,” Hoyer told JTA before leaving for Israel. “We don’t want to see those weapons used in a way that’s inconsistent with Israel’s security.”
The deal was announced July 30, during the last week before Congress adjourned for its summer break.
Administration officials are presenting the arms deal as a key component in securing Saudi cooperation in efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal, quell Sunni violence in Iraq and forge a powerful Arab bloc to counter Iranian ambitions in the region.
As part of its plan, the administration signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel on Thursday promising a hike in U.S. military assistance to the Jewish state over the next 10 years from $2.4 billion to $3 billion annually. Pro-Israel lobbyists had wanted to see that part of the proposal signed before they consider the Saudi component.
Hoyer expressed sympathy for the Bush administration’s assertion that the Saudi deal would help build opposition to Iran. Still, he wants details.
“I want to see it before we approve it or disapprove it,” he said, referring to the Saudi deal.
He was supposed to leave for Israel last week, but the trip was delayed because of disagreements over the schedule for doling out the assistance.
Burns remains opaque over the Saudi deal. Speaking in a podcast on the State Department’s Web site just before leaving for the region to negotiate the deal, he said reports of the $20 billion figure baffled him. He said more would be clear by the end of September.
“I don’t know where you get the figure 20 billion, because we actually now have to go out and negotiate with the six Arab states with specific military technology,” Burns said.
In fact, the figure came from members of Congress who attended briefings with Burns in the last days of July.
“Things may drop off the list and things may be added,” Burns said in the podcast, recorded at the Starbucks in the basement of State’s Foggy Bottom headquarters.
Congressional insiders said the timing was crucial. If the details are not put forward until November, Congress would face a dilemma: Approve the deal or boot the request into 2008. The pressure to approve could be intense because of the Israeli component.
In a subtle reminder to Congress of where its interests lay, Burns noted that most of the Israeli and Saudi components boiled down to congressional oxygen: good old American pork in the form of defense contracts for U.S. arms manufacturers.
Parts of the Israel package would “subsidize efforts that the Israelis need to make to modernize their training and to keep their forces at an alert status,” Burns said. “But the majority of it will be for purchases. And with the Gulf states and with Saudi Arabia as well, that is not money that we’re giving them. This is money that they will use to purchase American military technology, so it’s very much in our interest.”
Olmert initially blessed the Saudi deal, but Israelis are now tentatively expressing reservations about what Riyadh is ready to bring to the diplomatic table in confronting Iran and when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convenes a conference in the fall to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
“The major issue is whether the Saudis are going to play a positive role on different fronts,” Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told JTA in an interview. “In terms of oil prices, the Saudis are the ones who have the capacity to increase production and neutralize Iranian threats” to drive up prices.
Saudi participation in Iran’s economic isolation also would nudge hesitant Europeans on board for the Bush administration’s proposed increases in military aid to regional allies, he said.
Meridor also said the Saudis could help by cutting off Hamas in the Palestinian areas and delivering “unequivocal” support to the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate.
That was the tack Mitt Romney, a front-runner among Republican presidential candidates, wanted to see. The former Massachusetts governor called Saudi Arabia an “important strategic ally” in a statement solicited by JTA.
However, Romney said it was “essential” that the Saudis “support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” as well as back the Iraqi government and end support for the “incubators of terror.”
Romney’s main Republican rival, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had no comment, although one of his top advisers is Norman Podhoretz, the former Commentary editor and a harsh critic of the Saudis.
Democratic front-runners Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards blasted the deal, saying Bush was using arms as a shortcut to peacemaking. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) did not return requests for comment.
Americans for Peace Now counseled against the sale in a letter to congressional lawmakers, saying it was “likely to impact negatively on security and stability in the region, sparking an arms race that could fuel tensions and increase the possibility of armed conflict.”