NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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Saudi Arabia is preparing to buy $60 billion worth of weapons from the United States. Many members of Congress are concerned about the size of the sale.
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The proposed arms sale includes 84 F-15 fighter jets. Congress is seeking assurances that Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East will be maintained.

House Wants Answers on Saudi Arms Deal

More than 45 percent of the House—198 members—have signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that raises questions about the Obama administration’s decision to sell $60 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia. The letter seeks assurances that Israel’s qualitative military edge will be maintained.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), and the ranking member, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), initiated the letter, which garnered a large number of signatures even though Congress has been on recess.

The cosigners strongly criticize the Saudi monarchy for failing to normalize its ties with Israel and wonder what the regime has done, beyond words, to counter the threat of Iran.

The Role of Congress

The Obama administration formally notified Congress on October 20 of its intent to sell the advanced weaponry and military equipment to Saudi Arabia. The $60 billion sale would be the largest-ever U.S. arms deal.

The arms package reportedly includes 84 F-15 fighter jets, 72 Black Hawk helicopters, 70 Longbow Apache helicopters and 36 Little Bird helicopters. The sale is also expected to include technology and equipment to modernize 70 of the F-15 jets that Saudi Arabia has previously purchased from the United States.

Congress has a constitutional role to play in overseeing this sale. Should Congress decide to stop the sale, it has until November 20 to do so before the Defense Department and companies proceed to more detailed talks on contracts, which probably would extend over a decade. Congress will review the proposal during its lame-duck session, which started on November 15.

Impact on Israel

While the United States has consulted extensively with Israel about the Saudi Arms deal, the Jewish state still has reason to be concerned. Saudi Arabia is among the 20 of 22 Arab states that do not recognize Israel. In fact, the Saudi government refuses to have any contacts with Israel until Israel withdraws from every inch of land that it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

In addition, Riyadh actively participates in the longstanding Arab League boycott of Israel. And while Israel does not share a border with Saudi Arabia, the desert kingdom is visible from the Eilat Mountains. A Saudi F-15 stationed in northwest Saudi Arabia could fly to Israel in minutes.

The sale, if completed, would force Israel to spend more money in order to retain its qualitative military edge in the Middle East. Recently, Israel approved the purchase of 20 F-35 jets from the United States to help ensure its aerial superiority over its foes. But the purchase comes at a substantial cost. The $2.75 billion price tag for the 20 jets will force Israel to re-appropriate funds from other defense programs and needs.

Human Rights

Freedom House consistently ranks Saudi Arabia as one of the most oppressive countries on the planet. For this reason, a number of activists have criticized the Saudi arms deal on human rights grounds. One of them, David Keyes, the director of CyberDissidents.org, spoke on the Russian television network RT about why he thinks a heavily armed Saudi regime should be a cause for concern.

“Saudi Arabia is a country which lashes gays, prevents women from leaving their home or country without being accompanied by a male mahram, or guardian… there is gender apartheid, it bans women from driving, and I think a lot more can be done to increase American concern and pressure for improvements in Saudi human rights,” Keyes said.

Keyes expressed hope that U.S. arms sales could be linked to human rights reforms.

“If Saudi Arabia wants $60 billion worth of arms, and another $30 billion which are being considered, then they should allow women to leave their homes and the country without a male guardian, and they should cease some of their dictatorial policies,” he said. “I think that’s a much a saner approach to dealing with Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, I think this deal is going to go through regardless.”

The full Berman/Ros-Lehtinen letter is below:

We write concerning the notification to Congress of arms sales to Saudi Arabia with a reported value of approximately $60 billion, the largest in United States history. Some of us have been briefed about aspects of the sales, others have not. Congress takes seriously its responsibility under the Arms Export Control Act to review potential sales of defense articles and services abroad. We are writing therefore to raise concerns and pose a number of strategic questions about the impact such sales would have on the national security interests of the United States and our allies.

We would like you to explain the rationale for a sale of such magnitude. What U.S. policy goals and interests are advanced by this sale and have we placed any conditions on it? What is the threat or threats that this sale is intended to address? Do the Saudis share our assessment of those threats, and will they be amenable to and capable of carrying out these missions? We are also concerned about the potential repercussions for our friends and for our own forces in the region in the event of political change in Saudi Arabia.

We are also concerned about whether these transfers are being integrated into broader U.S. national security policies. As you know, a recently-released report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the Departments of State and Defense “did not consistently document how arms transfers to Gulf countries advanced U.S. foreign policy and national security goals…”

We also continue to be troubled about aspects of Saudi regional policy. For example, we have serious concerns about the nature of Saudi involvement in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly since the Saudis have failed to take steps towards normalization of relations with Israel or to augment their financial support to the Palestinian Authority.

Likewise, Saudi officials have often made clear their anxiety over the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. But what action, if any, has Saudi Arabia taken to address this threat? For example, have the Saudis used their considerable leverage in the international oil market to diminish Iran’s oil revenue? And what have the Saudis done to stem terrorist financing? What steps has Saudi Arabia taken to support U.S. counter-proliferation efforts and to substantially improve their own non-proliferation record? We would like to know if these types of issues were addressed in the course of negotiating these arms sales with the Saudis.

We also want a clear understanding of how these sales are likely to impact others in the region. America has long been committed to Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME)—that is, its ability to prevail against any combination of regional threats. While we understand the Administration has worked productively with Israel to address Israeli security concerns, we would like to know how these arms sales will affect Israel’s QME and what steps we have taken or are planning to take to maintain and strengthen Israel’s edge.

We believe that arms transfers, particularly those of this magnitude and involving such sophisticated equipment, require careful Congressional scrutiny and oversight in order to ensure that our national security interests are advanced and our allies are protected. We look forward to your response to the questions we have raised and to discussing these matters with you in the weeks ahead.

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