Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 26, 27


Israel Lobby Opposing Saudi F-15 Purchase

By Dennis Wamsted

Having lost the battle over loan guarantees, Israel's congressional supporters turned their attention to other issues in April, focusing particularly on an as-yet-unannounced administration plan to sell Saudi Arabia an additional 72 F-15 jet fighters worth an estimated $5.3 billion.

In an April 9 letter to President Bush organized by Rep. Mel Levine (D-CA), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who is running for the Senate in California this year, at least 237 members of Congress voiced concerns about the planned sale. Since the Gulf war with Iraq, the members wrote, "the administration has sold $14.8 billion worth of major military equipment to Saudi Arabia."

"The potential danger to Israel of such a sale is substantial."

Now, they added, the administration is planning an additional transfer, which would bring the total to more than $20 billion. "This emerging pattern leaves the impression. . . that the administration is not serious about arms control in the Middle East," the bipartisan group wrote.

They urged the administration to "consult with and share its plans with Congress on these matters so that U.S. arms policy to the region can be effectively coordinated."

The letter from House members was dated only four days after an April 5 memorandum distributed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which argued that "the potential danger to Israel of such a sale is substantial. The F-15s under consideration for sale to Saudi Arabia are more advanced and qualitatively superior to the F-15s currently operated by the Israeli Air Force. Heavily arming Saudi Arabia with these advanced F-15 strike aircraft would severely erode Israel's vital margin of qualitative superiority in the air."

Israeli Supporters Target Kuwait Arms Purchase

An earlier administration proposal to sell Kuwait an arms package worth $2.5 billion that includes advanced air defense equipment also may be in for close congressional scrutiny. The planned sale, announced in March, includes Patriot and Hawk missiles and launchers. In a statement announcing the sale, the Defense Department said it "will help improve the security of a friendly country which has been and continues to be an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East."

At the time the sale was announced, little opposition was expected because of the largely defensive nature of the weapons. In late April, however, just prior to the expiration of the congressional notification period, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), a strong supporter of Israel, began drumming up opposition to the proposal. Berman, who like Levine and Fascell sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter opposing the sale and was said to be considering introducing legislation to prohibit the sale outright.

Foreign Aid Finale

Stymied for more than six months by the debate over providing loan guarantees to Israel, Congress finally passed in early April a foreign aid appropriations measure for fiscal 1992, which began Oct. 1, 1991. The stopgap measure, totaling $14.2 billion, does little more than extend current spending levels through the Sept. 30 end of the 1992 fiscal year.

As in years past, the measure provides roughly $3 billion in economic and military aid for Israel, including $1.8 billion in military aid and $1.2 billion in economic support, and $2.15 billion for Egypt, including $1.2 billion in military funding and $815 million in economic aid. As discussed in more detail below, the measure also includes a non-binding resolution backed by the Senate noting congressional support for the loan guarantees.

The question now is whether Congress will be able to complete action on the fiscal 1993 foreign aid appropriation measure by Oct. 1, 1992, when the new fiscal year begins. In the intervening five months, Congress will take several extended breaks, including time off for both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Congress also must complete work on a number of other competing measures, particularly the more politically popular domestic spending measures, in that period.

Statement From a Statesman

On April 1, the Senate overwhelmingly adopted a non-binding resolution expressing support for extending loan guarantees to Israel. The final vote was 99-1, which is unusual for two reasons. First, if that many senators really did support the loan guarantees, the pro-Israel lobby almost certainly would have pushed for a binding vote on the proposal.

Second, members who disagree with non-binding resolutions such as this generally simply hold their tongues during any floor debate. However, in this case, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, strongly opposed the proposal, and spoke out bluntly against it in a speech on the Senate floor. Excerpts follow:

"I, therefore, rise to speak in opposition to the resolution now pending before the Senate, and I do so because I have come to the conclusion that the loan guarantee program, as it has been proposed, does not serve the interests of the U.S. and, indeed, is not in the best interests of Israel. . .

"My view is that the economic rationale is questionable, and most of the funds may not end up as a direct humanitarian program for Soviet immigrants at all. Further, economic reforms which are needed in order for Israel to continue to be able to repay its debts are in some doubt. Infusion of new funds guaranteed by the United States, along with the additional money made available from other sources as a result of U.S. guarantees, may well work directly against economic reform and longterm stability in Israel, as well as running counter to U.S. policy toward settlements in the occupied territories and the peace process in the Middle East. . .

"The American people are apparently being asked to underwrite major new economic growth programs for Israel when we cannot develop them for our own desperately-in-need economy. We are being asked to guarantee funding for. . . infrastructure projects. . . at a time when U.S. spending on its own infrastructure is far lower than that being infused by our European allies into their economies. . .

"A. . . point to consider when evaluating Israel's record of prompt repayment is a provision included in every foreign operations appropriation bill since 1985. . . 'Therefore, the Congress declares that it is the policy and the intention of the U.S. that the funds provided in annual appropriations for the Economic Support Fund which are allocated to Israel shall not be less than the annual debt repayment, interest and principal, from Israel to the US government.' It seems to me that. . . then Israel certainly ought to have a spotless record of repayment. But it also strikes me that this does not mean that loans and loan guarantees to Israel do not cost the US anything. . .

"The original $10 billion in loan request was apparently based upon an estimate of over 400,000 Jewish immigrants arriving in Israel from the Soviet Union in 1991 and over 1 million over a five-year period. However, only 175,000 arrived in 1991, and the request has not been adjusted. . . as far as I know, so there is a rather loose connection between the request and the need as demonstrated by the facts. . .

"In the face of all of the uncertainty in Israel, this proposed program would ask the American taxpayer to co-sign a total of $10 billion in investment guarantees intended to prop up this unstable foreign economy at a time when we are telling the American people that we cannot afford to invest at home. . .

"We have provided Israel with multi-billion-dollar aid packages since 1974, and both the U.S. and Israel have very little progress to show for it. Israel has become dependent on both our economic and military assistance. Our aid has enabled Israel to maintain its enormous military capability, put off much needed economic reforms, and avoid making serious progress in solving its problems with its neighbors. Israel must, for its own good, start to stand on its own and cut itself free of a dependence that is really a roadblock to progress. . .

"There is clearly a clash of policy goals between the current government of Israel and the U.S. . . .

"The Israeli government's key policy priority seems to be that of settling the occupied territories at the fastest possible pace, a policy priority that seems to be ahead of absorbing Soviet immigrants per se. It seems fair to conclude that the loan guarantee money may well be used to further that key Israeli policy, rather than primarily for immigrant housing. . .

". . . My principal objection to this resolution is that it puts the U.S. Senate on record in favor of American financial support for a policy which is in direct opposition to the central pillar of longstanding U.S. policy on land disputes in the Middle East. . . This will work against an equitable negotiated settlement on the status of those lands, which is a keystone to peace in the Middle East." 

Dennis J. Wamsted is a free-lance writer specializing in the U.S. Congress and the Middle East.

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