The “landmark” $110-billion arms deal Donald Trump announced on his visit to Saudi Arabia is like the president himself – a lot of hype but little substance.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counter-terrorism expert and National Security Council advisor in four administrations, said there’s no deal, just “a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but no contracts,” what the Pentagon calls “intended sales.” Some items “don’t actually exist yet,” he pointed out. What’s more, the Saudis might not even be able to afford it in light of falling oil prices and the rising cost of their war in Yemen, he added.
That may help explain why Israel and its friends are barely making a peep.
Quite a contrast to the 1981 Saudi arms sale that included five AWACS early warning aircraft, advanced systems to enhance its fleet of F-15s and various missiles and other weapons.
AIPAC led the ferocious AWACS opposition to a sale a fraction of the size of the one Trump is boasting about. An AIPAC spokesman merely said Congress “should closely scrutinize” the Trump package.
I was the legislative director of AIPAC in 1981, leading the lobbying on Capitol Hill, and we had the full backing of American Jewish organizations and the Israeli government. Then, as now, the administration touted the sale as essential to meeting any threat from Iran, a bitter enemy of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. And in both instances the White House gave assurances it would have no effect on Israel’s qualitative military edge. But they’d say the same thing even if they were selling the Saudi oil sheiks nuclear-armed missiles: business is business.
The business angle cuts both ways. While Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin expressed firm opposition to the sale, his ambassador in Washington, Ephriam Evron, felt we should let it go and secretly lobbied against us. Maybe he knew something even Begin didn’t.
Weeks after the Congress failed to stop the deal — we’d won by nearly 3-to-1 in the House but lost in the Senate by only three votes – I made a startling discovery.
In addition to the five AWACS planes were conformal fuel tanks for the U.S.-made Saudi F-15s to extend their range, firepower and lethality
I was in Israel that autumn and visited Israel Aircraft Industries at Ben Gurion Airport. What I saw there surprised me. There were crates of F-15 conformal fuel tanks, which made sense since the Israeli Air Force had its own fleet, but these were all addressed to “Royal Saudi Air Force” in Riyadh with a return address of “Tulsa, Oklahoma.” While we were telling the Congress these posed a threat to Israel, the Israelis were manufacturing them to sell to the same Saudi enemy.
I wondered whether the Saudis knew that they fought so hard to buy Israeli-made equipment, and if they’d known, would they have cancelled the deal.
“Absolutely, they knew we were making them,” a former IAI executive told me. McDonnell Douglas subcontracted that and other F-15 components to IAI and still does for other subsystems on the Saudi fleet.
The Carter administration, which sold the Saudis the original F-15s, had restricted their range, firepower, basing (near Israel), avionics and refueling capabilities, but the Reagan administration quickly lifted all restrictions. The Saudis now have about 400 F-15s, the third largest fleet after the United States and Japan. Israel has about 200.
I wonder how much of the latest Saudi arms deal, if it ever materializes, will be produced by Israeli companies and whether and when the Saudis will find out.