Israel raises alarm over US-Saudi arms sale as deal awaits congressional fate

U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman sign a Joint Strategic Vision Statement for the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, May 20, 2017. Credit: White House Photo/Shealah Craighead.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman sign a Joint Strategic Vision Statement for the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, May 20, 2017. Credit: White House Photo/Shealah Craighead.

By Ariel Ben Solomon and Yaakov Lappin/

The high-profile U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which President Donald Trump signed during his recent visit to Riyadh and is awaiting congressional approval, raised alarm in Jerusalem due to what officials describe as the potential diminishment of Israel’s military edge over regional foes.

The stability of Middle East governments has been as precarious as ever since the outbreak of Arab uprisings in 2011, meaning that advanced military equipment sold to states such as Saudi Arabia could ultimately end up in the hands of Islamist regimes or terrorist groups in the event of a government collapse.

The $110 billion deal with Saudi Arabia—which can extend to $350 billion over 10 years—is meant to counteract the growing regional aggression of the Saudis’ chief rival, the Shi’a power of Iran. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Chris Murphy (D.-Conn.) and Al Franken (D.-Minn.) are spearheading an effort to block the sale, citing Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, extremist ideology and controversial military actions in Yemen.

While Israel shares Iran-related concerns with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman signaled he was disturbed by the arms sale.

“Look, I am not at peace with the whole arms race in the Middle East,” Lieberman told Army Radio. “It is not just the Saudis, it is also the Qataris, and the Iranians. Everyone here is buying up weapons. Arms deals in 2016 in the Middle East reached $215 billion, that is a significant sum. Hence, I am not comfortable with any arms race, and the enormous Saudi acquisition. It certainly does not add to our sense of quiet. With that, we are monitoring, and we are aware. We have a way of dealing with it.”

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz called the deal “a matter that really should trouble us.”

Yaakov Amidror, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, told the arms sale creates “an obligation to ensure that Israel’s qualitative edge is secured, and to that end, there is a need to understand what exactly was sold to [the Saudis], and to understand the significance that arises from the fact that these systems are around Israel.”

Israel raised objections about a similar deal in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan’s administration announced a sale of advanced military equipment to the Saudis. At the time, Prime Minister Menachem Begin expressed the Israeli government’s “unreserved opposition” to the sale.

Although Arab states “have a proven lack of serious modern war-fighting capability,” Israel needs to maintain its regional military superiority, said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security in Washington, D.C.

“The question is, how do you ensure such superiority if a humongous weapons package is being sold to the Saudis?” he said.

Cohen wonders whether the U.S. will respect its commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge, which dates back to Reagan’s presidency and officially became American law in 2008. Asked if the Saudi arms deal is likely to pass in Congress, he said he does not foresee any major obstacles, but added many Democrats “will object because they oppose Trump.”

Iran is the primary strategic military threat for Israel and the BDS movement is its top non-military threat, said Cohen, who believes an alliance between the U.S., Israel, Egypt and the Sunni Gulf states against the Iranian-led Shi’a axis should be pursued.

David Andrew Weinberg, a specialist on Gulf affairs and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told he expects “intense opposition to the Saudi arms sales from some [congressional] Democrats, but that it will ultimately go ahead without being blocked.”

Israel’s worries about the American-Saudi deal, however, are unlikely to fade—likely resulting in the Jewish state’s own request for more advanced U.S. weaponry.

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