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When to Fight and Not to Fight: Jewish Groups Reassess Stance on U.S. Arms Sales to Arabs

August 5, 1988
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

American Jewish groups are reassessing their positions on U.S. arms sales to Arab countries in light of the massive $30 billion arms deal in the works between Great Britain and Saudi Arabia, and the more recent battle over a proposed U.S. sale to Kuwait.

U.S. Jewish groups, like Israel, in principle oppose all arms sales to Arab countries, except Egypt. But they decide on a case-by-case basis whether to fight a given proposed U.S. sale.

In some cases, pro-Israel groups have sought to modify a planned arms package to remove portions considered serious threats to Israel.

On the Kuwaiti sale, for instance, Reagan administration officials, members of Congress and representatives of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, hammered out a deal July 29 to remove anti-armor missiles from the proposed package and replace them with additional anti-bunker missiles, considered less of a threat to Israel.

On Thursday, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, representing 46 national Jewish groups, issued a statement endorsing the modified package. But some groups questioned the rationale of fighting the original package from the very beginning.

Concern about the wisdom of lobbying against such sales has been heightened by news of the British-Saudi deal, which was confirmed by both parties last month. If the sale goes through, Britain would replace the United States as the largest weapons supplier to the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia also has negotiated a deal to buy sophisticated intermediate-range missiles from the People’s Republic of China, and Syria is rumored to be pursuing a similar purchase.


The fact that Arab nations are turning to countries other than the United States for arms means both a loss of U.S. control over what types of weaponry are finding their way into the Middle East and a loss of jobs for American workers.

Senior U.S. officials, such as Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy, have said such sales represent a missed opportunity to U.S. defense contractors.

Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and other Jewish leaders acknowledged that their groups will be re-examining their policies on arms sales in light of the Saudi-British deal.

Foxman said that as a general policy, U.S. Jewish groups should not act as “automatons” who fight every arms sale to Arab nations. He said, for example, that the arms deal with Kuwait concerned him much less than if Jordan or Saudi Arabia were to receive the weaponry.

AIPAC has come under criticism in both the Jewish and mainstream news media for opposing the original arms package to Kuwait and sales to Saudi Arabia that might have prevented it from purchasing sophisticated weaponry from Britain.

Jerusalem-based free-lance journalist Helen Davis, in an article published in six American Jewish weeklies, including the Baltimore Jewish Times and Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, quoted unnamed sources as saying AIPAC “has unwittingly shot Israel in the foot by indiscriminately opposing United States military sales to moderate Arab states.”

In an official response to the Davis column, which is to run in Jewish papers within the week, AIPAC spokeswoman Toby Dershowitz said that of the $17 billion in arms and military support services sold by the United States to Arab countries over the last five years, AIPAC has actively fought only 15 percent of that amount.

Martin Raffel, director of the Israel Task Force of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said the British-Saudi deal “startled” many Jewish leaders, because “for first time, the threat to go elsewhere to buy sophisticated arms was realized.”


NJCRAC is an umbrella group representing 11 national Jewish organizations and 114 Jewish community relations councils across the United States. Its Israel Task Force coordinates the Jewish community’s policy on issues affecting Israel.

Sources close to the Israel Task Force said no consensus was reached at its mid-July meeting about future arms policies, although the community relations councils were informed that NJCRAC intends to re-evaluate its overall approach to arms sales and to give the CRCs further guidance.

Foxman of ADL said Jewish groups have a “lot of work to do” against plans by pro-Arab activists to exploit the Saudi-British deal and “tell the story in a very skewed way.”

He said that 40 percent of the British sale was in naval vessels, which the United States does not make available for foreign purchase in the first place. He added that many of the other weapons contain U.S. components, contesting claims that the sale would cost the United States 50,000 jobs.

Stephen Silbiger, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress, placed much more weight on the jobs issue in evaluating whether to oppose arms sales.


He said his group did not fight the original proposed sale to Kuwait, and argued that “it is a very serious thing to take on an administration and ask American industry to forego certain jobs.”

Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents, also expressed concern about the Saudi-British arms deal, as well as other packages already sold to Arab countries by France and the Soviet Union.

He said foreign arms suppliers are not “as devoted and strategically allied to Israel” as is the United States, which unlike the others, determines whether Israel’s qualitative edge is being damaged.

He warned that “we will face a catastrophe” if Israel’s military superiority is not maintained, arguing that the growing U.S. arms flow to Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur War has “deterred war obviously” for the longest stretch in Israel’s history.

But Thomas Neumann, executive director of B’nai B’rith International, dismissed the argument that U.S. weapons sales to Arab countries are necessarily preferable to those made by other countries, because the United States insists that its weapons will not be used against Israel.

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