Obama’s about to expedite a slew of new weapons sales at the Camp David summit. Why isn’t Israel freaking out?
- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
In the absence of a major announcement on a security pact or missile defense shield, this week’s summit between the United States and six Persian Gulf countries is likely to fall back on a time-honored tradition: a series of expedited arms transfers from Washington to the oil-rich Arab states and a joint-statement highlighting America’s “renewed commitment” to the Gulf.
In the past, such weapons transfers have prompted major concern in Israel and Capitol Hill about Jerusalem losing its military edge over its Arab neighbors. But this time is different.
According to an official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization in the U.S. — the group is not trying to lobby Congress to block arms deals with the Gulf. The Israeli government has also refrained from weighing in, according to Hill staffers who maintain routine contacts with the Israelis.
“Israelis have been silent,” said a congressional aide familiar with the issue. “AIPAC was asking a lot of questions, but I wouldn’t characterize our interactions on this as lobbying.”
One reason, according to State Department and congressional sources, is that the Obama administration is carefully assessing how it can help Gulf allies deter a threat from Iran without overstepping Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME), a calculus the executive branch is required by law to take into account as it licenses the transfer of weapons to Middle East governments.
Another reason for Israel’s relaxed temperament is its newfound kinship with Arab countries who share its concerns about Iran’s rise in the region. “The Israelis have cared less about the deals happening this week because there’s a feeling in Israel that they now have an undeclared ally in the GCC against Iran,” said David Ottaway, a Gulf expert at the Wilson Center, using an acronym for the six countries that makeup the Gulf Cooperation Council.
But satisfying all sides equally is easier said than done — and at least some of the top weapons systems on the GCC wish list are not expected to be supplied due to QME considerations, including the F-35 Lightning II, a “fifth-generation” fighter jet designed to be virtually invisible to enemy radar, and BU-28 bunker buster bombs, which Washington has only provided to Israel. Instead, the Gulf countries are likely to walk away with promises to expedite the transfers of long-sought munitions and radar equipment.
“The Emiratis and to a certain extent the Saudis had wanted to build this session into a much more robust agreement on both security guarantees and specific arms transfers,” said a congressional staffer familiar with the issue. “The U.S. side had to manage those inflated expectations back down to something more realistic.”
The summit itself, a gathering of senior officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, isn’t likely to produce a statement that details a laundry list of weapons deals. However, leaders are expected to discuss ways the U.S. can expedite long-desired equipment that will help Gulf countries deter Iran and replenish arms used in the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Those items are likely to include new avionics equipment for F-15 and F-16 aircraft, upgraded radar systems that reach greater distances and identify smaller objects, and an increased flow of ordnance to Gulf militaries, such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs, which are one of Saudi Arabia’s main weapons in that air war. Upgraded radar equipment, in particular, is seen as important for spotting incoming Iranian small boats or surveillance and armed drones.
Obama invited the GCC countries to Camp David in April with the goal of easing Arab concerns about the emerging nuclear deal with Iran and five world powers. Ahead of the summit, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had been pushing for the U.S. to agree to a mutual defense treaty, a proposal Washington now says is not in the cards.
In an interview with al Jazeera Wednesday, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that a formal defense “treaty is not what we’re looking for.”
“It took decades to build NATO and the Asian allies but we can provide clear assurances that we will come to their defense,” he said.
Some have attributed the decision by Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Salman, not to attend this week’s summit to Washington’s refusal to commit to a defense treaty.
For its part, Washington wants to avoid making ironclad security guarantees in a region marred by perpetual instability.
As an alternative, Obama is expected to push for a regional defense shield aimed at guarding against the Iranian missile threat, but while Saudi Arabia is supportive of the project, other GCC countries, such as the UAE, have raised doubts about the feasibility of the effort. An easy fallback is additional arms sales.
Any new weapons deals would accelerate Riyadh’s ongoing push to grow and modernize its armed forces. Last year, Saudi Arabia passed India and became the world’s top importer of weapons, aircraft, and other military equipment, according to IHS’ annual Global Defense Trade Report. Riyadh’s imports jumped 54 percent between 2013 and 2014, and IHS projected a further 52 percent increase this year.
In the last 20 years, Saudi Arabia has invested nearly $500 billion into its military, according to Jean-Francois Seznec of Johns Hopkins University. With nearly three-quarters of that cash going to the United States, Riyadh is one of the most lucrative sources of income for U.S. defence companies.
Riyadh isn’t the only Gulf power opening its wallet wide: the IHS report noted that Saudi Arabia and the UAE spent $8.6 billion on defense imports in 2014, an amount bigger than that spent by all of Western Europe put together.
The UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are already in the process of upgrading existing Raytheon Co Patriot missile defense systems to utilize new PAC-3 missiles. The UAE is also buying another missile defense system from Lockheed Martin: a longer-range Terminal HIgh Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
By next year, Qatar could close a $6.5 billion deal for a THAAD system, which could be followed by a similar purchase by Saudi Arabia.
Over the years, the massive flow of arms to Gulf allies has caused a number of flare ups in the U.S.-Israel relationship. A particularly heated battle surrounded the Reagan administration’s $8.5 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia in 1981, the largest foreign arms sale in U.S. history at the time.
The sale, which included the transfer of AWACS reconnaissance planes to Riyadh, was loudly protested by Israel and its allies in Congress. Though President Ronald Reagan ultimately cleared the sale, he denounced the meddling of Israel in U.S. politics in ways unfathomable in the current political context. ”It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy,” Reagan said at a news conference that year.
Ottaway, the Gulf expert, said much has changed since that historic dispute. “Almost all these more sophisticated American arms going to the Gulf are pre-negotiated with Israel,” he said. “If AIPAC doesn’t like the deal, you can be sure that nobody’s seriously thinking about providing it.”
For its part, the State Department insists it has no problem managing the interests and concerns of all parties involved, despite the groundswell of mutual distrust that is synonymous with the Middle East. “Our close engagement with GCC member states is not incompatible with our unwavering commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, as evidenced by our substantial military cooperation with both Israel and the GCC,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told Foreign Policy.