By Douglas Bloomfield
A bipartisan group of House members is proposing giving Israel a virtual veto over all American arms sales to every country in the Middle East. They say this will protect Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME).
It’s a bad idea. Bad for the United States. Bad for Israel. And Israel doesn’t need it.
Yes, Israel would like to get asked for its approval every time the United States wants to make major sales of weapons and defense services throughout the Middle East. Who wouldn’t? But it would be wrong.
Pandering Or Policy?
I suspect the sponsors of this bill were thinking more about the benefits to their campaign coffers than about Israel’s security— not that they don’t care about Israel, I’m sure they do, but this looks more like pandering than policy.
Firstly, protecting Israel’s QME has been U.S. policy since Lyndon Johnson was president half a century ago and it was written into law in 2008. But the definition remains elusive. That’s because QME, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
The Arms Export Control Act (AECA) requires the administration to certify that sales of major defense articles and services in the Middle East will not “adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge” over potential military threats.
The seller, the U.S. government. When the Pentagon notifies House and Senate committees on foreign affairs of plans to make a major arms sale, the Congress has 30 days to say “No” (“Yes” is the default response) or it can go ahead. That notification includes assurances Israel’s QME will not be harmed.
That’s just boilerplate bordering on meaningless. Short of the sale of nuclear weapons, there is almost no conceivable sale to a cash-rich Middle Eastern national that wouldn’t elicit claims
about an altered balance of power.
The sale of anything larger than slingshot to an Arab neighbor or potential enemy inevitably generates objections from some Israeli quarters.
Consult With Israelis?
Any disagreement likely to arise under provisions of this bill could set up clashes that serve no one’s interest except some political provocateurs who want to impress constituents and donors.
The legislation proposed by Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill) and several of his colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would “require the president to consult with the Israeli government” to assure its QME. In fact, Schneider said his bill was drafted “though consultations with the Israeli government.”
Of course, the Israelis would love it. They would have a virtual veto over every U.S. arms sale in the region.
Washington and Jerusalem naturally have different definitions of national interest. Moreover, no Israeli government wants to be seen publicly acquiescing to arms sales to an Arab country.
From an American perspective, arms sales to a variety of regional powers make strategic sense — and economic sense for a U.S. defense establishment eager to get foreign countries to help defray the cost of mega-expensive weapons systems.
Sales To The UAE
Currently there is a contretemps over UAE’s desire to buy F-35 stealth fighters, including within the Israeli government.
The Emirates have long wanted to buy the world’s most advanced fighter jet, and the Trump administration apparently used that as leverage to get it to sign a peace agreement with Israel. While Israel publicly, albeit mildly, objects, it is widely believed in all three capitals that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his tacit consent to the deal, despite his denials in the face of criticism from hawkish colleagues.
Not all Israeli objections are the same. Some are merely bargaining chips to leverage more “compensation” from Washington.
Israel Wants In?
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz was just in Washington to make sure the UAE F-35 would be a lower grade version (the same as the earlier deals for Egyptian F-16s and Saudi F-15s). Israel is said to be looking for a new $8 billion weapons package that includes more F-35s, V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and KC-46 Pegasus refueling tankers. In addition, it wants a piece of the UAE action, called offsets—contracts to build some of the plane’s components. Also, on Israel’s wish list is U.S. clearance to sell its own drone technology and other systems to the Emirates and other new partners for peace.
There is an interesting precedent. Nearly 40 years ago, I was the legislative director of AIPAC, and along with other friends of Israel, we were trying to block the sale of AWACS early warning aircraft and components for Saudi F-15s, seemingly with the encouragement of Menachem Begin’s government. What we didn’t know was that the Israeli Aircraft Industry, owned by the Ministry of Defense, was working against us. It was actually manufacturing conformal fuel pods for those F-15s; I saw them myself on the factory floor in crates addressed to the Royal Saudi Air Force with return address of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I don’t know when the Saudis found out, but this time it won’t be a secret.
I’ve spent many years challenging arms sales to Israel’s enemies that I felt posed a security threat, going back to mobile anti-aircraft missiles for Jordan in 1975. I am hawkish when it comes to challenging bad arms sales, but Schneider’s proposal goes too far.
No sovereign nation would or should surrender control of its foreign policy to another, regardless of how good a friend it may be. Israeli and American interests often overlap but not always.
After the first Lebanon war in 1978, Israel shared with the Pentagon “lessons learned” confronting Soviet arms and technology only to find out they’d been shared by the Reagan administration with Italy, which shared them with Syria, which passed them along to Moscow.
On another occasion the U.S. intervened to stop Israel from selling AWACS-type technology to China. It might have helped Beijing-Jerusalem relations and trade, but Washington was more worried about the technology being used against the American Navy in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon, always eager to sell U.S. arms, has been known to block competition from Israel. Arms sales give Washington influence and access in each customer countries. The Defense Department also gets a commission on each sale, often sells off old inventory to help pay for newer upgrades, gets economy of scale for its own purchases and polishes relations with its suppliers.
Schneider’s legislation is bad for the U.S., bad for Israel and should be dropped before it sparks conflict between two close allies and their supporters.