Have pro-Israel groups in Washington essentially thrown in the towel when it comes to big U.S. arms sales to Arab countries? It depends on who you ask.
The issue has relevance this week because of a Ha’aretz story about growing concern in Israeli military circles about big new U.S. sales to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates of weapons like bunker-busting bombs and anti-ship missiles.
Concern, maybe. But once again pro-Israel groups in Washington, renowned for their political muscle, aren’t doing much. At least publicly.
A longtime pro-Israel activist who asked not to be identified took a skeptic’s view; back in the mid-1980s, pro-Israel groups made a decision to “stop challenging any US arms sales to any Arab state lest it offend its friends at the Pentagon and the Reagan White House.”
Foreign arms sales are a political sacred cow. Lawmakers in both parties and both Democratic and Republican presidents are always eager to expand sales to reduce per-unit costs for weapons the U.S. military needs, improve our balance of trade and to keep voters in districts with important defense contractors happy.
And with the defense business spread across the national map, that’s a pretty big group of voters.
Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), said pro-Israel groups initially backed away from high-profile fights over arms sales because of a pragmatic belief that these were battles they couldn’t win.
“It’s never been true that the Jewish community could stop an arms sale an administration really wanted,” she said. “Even AIPAC admits its now moves mostly to modify sales that could be dangerous to Israel.”
Adding to the reluctance to to to war on Capitol Hill is a growing belief that countries like Saudi Arabia want advanced arms these days not to threaten Israel, but to protect themselves against an Iran seeking regional hegemony, Bryen said.
“Pro-Israel groups are generally quiet because they know they can’t stop sales – and more and more, they’re not sure where they stand on the need for these countries to defend themselves against Iran,” she said.
What about AIPAC, a group with a long reputation for pragmatism and lobbying savvy?
AIPAC spokesman Josh Block had this to say: “The US and Israel have a long history of close cooperation on these issues, and maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge is the cornerstone of American policy in the region. Congress has enacted several pieces of legislation over the past few years further codifying many aspects of the process that ensures no US arms sale harms Israel’s military edge in the region. Likewise, the Administration has established new mechanisms to deepen strategic ties with Israel and ensure the same.”
Others close to AIPAC say that while arms sales like the ones reported in the Israeli press no longer generate headlines in this country, there is consultation between Jerusalem and Washington – and U.S. officials have repeatedly agreed to modify sales to reduce the potential danger to the Jewish state.