Even After the Huge U.S.-Saudi Arms Deal, Israel Retains Its Military Edge - for Now

Israel's ability to influence Trump on the matter seems to be extremely limited. If, in an extreme scenario, Saudi Arabia once again becomes an enemy of Israel, the upgrading of its air force could pose a threat

Saudi Arabia's King Salman waves as Donald and Melania Trump board Air Force One, May 22, 2017.
BANDAR AL-JALOUD/AFP

The entire story of Donald Trump’s visit to Israel can be found in the difference between two statements, made just a few hours apart, on Wednesday, the day after the U.S. president left Israel.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel’s Army Radio in an interview that he was “not at peace with the arms race in the Middle East” and the massive U.S.-Saudi weapons deal. Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at the official memorial ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, quickly tried to correct the course. The United States “is committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative [military] advantage in the Middle East,” Netanyahu said, the prime minister’s words matching a statement released by the White House after Trump’s visit.

As in Trump’s potentially harmful leak to the Russians of sensitive intelligence about the Islamic State group — the Israeli origin of which Lieberman confirmed indirectly during the same radio interview — Israel’s ability to influence Trump’s behavior in regard to the U.S. commitment to sell the Saudis weapons valued at the astronomical sum of $110 billion is extremely limited.

Trump, as it was made perfectly clear during his visit here this week, loves Israel and expresses his affection for it at every opportunity. For now, he has not signaled that he intends to try to impose on Netanyahu a peace agreement with the Palestinians that the prime minister’s right-wing government opposes. Still, Trump’s approach to the Middle East combines inexplicable behavior (such as leaking sensitive intelligence) with strategic and business interests far beyond Israel’s sphere of influence (such as the Saudi arms deal).

The Saudi arms agreement began during the Obama administration. Trump had a particular interest in promoting it because of the possibility of translating it into thousands of new American manufacturing jobs, one of his most prominent campaign promises.

The Saudi royal family presumably assumes that the huge contracts will help it to gain proximity to the new president. It is also possible that Trump family business interests are involved in the deal; first son-in-law and presidential adviser Jared Kushner lobbied hard to sign the deal quickly. The choice of Riyadh as the first stop on Trump’s first trip abroad as president reflects the importance to him of Saudi Arabia in particular, and the conservative Sunni Muslim states in general, as a major axis of his Middle East policy.

Washington did not keep Israel fully informed over the final stages of the Saudi deal, and Jerusalem seems to be playing catch-up in learning its details. When Netanyahu presented Trump’s commitment to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge as a great personal achievement, he forgot to note that this commitment was enacted into law by the U.S. Congress back in 2008. It mandates the preservation of Israel’s military advantage not only over declared enemies of the Jewish state such as Iran, but also over less-hostile states, including major U.S. military customers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In the past decade, maintaining Israel’s military edge has been in expressed in a number of ways: preserving Israel’s status as the only country in the region allowed to purchase the advanced (and controversial) F-35 fighter aircraft; supplying Israel with precision-guided munitions; keeping American emergency military warehouses in Israel, in a way that also serves the Israeli military at times; and maintaining close intelligence cooperation, in which Israel receives exclusive access to classified intelligence.

Egyptian President al-Sissi, Saudi King Salman and President Trump, visit a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, in Riyadh
Uncredited/AP

Five years ago, in light of the large wave of weapons deals between the United States and the Gulf states, Israel and the United States discussed the compensation Israel would receive to preserve its qualitative military superiority. One thing the Americans proposed was for Israel to be the first country allowed to purchase the V-22 Osprey vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. In 2014, after the wasteful use of munitions by Israel during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, then-Defense Ministry Director General Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel was sent to Washington to convince the Americans replace the aerial toys with more precision-guided munitions. The Obama administration agreed to the request.

According to the official reports, the new arms deal includes a wide range of weapons: The THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system, over 100 advanced tanks, helicopters, missile ships, precision-guided munitions for the Saudi air force and cybersecurity systems. The new Saudi tanks certainly should not worry Israel. The dangerous potential for Israel comes mostly in two aspects: Reinforcing the Saudi air defense system (which could include an antiaircraft system for the missile boats) in a way that could limit Israel Air Force operations in the future; and the precision-guided munitions.

If, in an extreme scenario, Saudi Arabia once again becomes an enemy of Israel, the upgrading of its air force — which also has the most advanced versions of the F-15 — will aid the enemy in acquiring a large number of planes and large quantities of munitions. Despite the clear aerial superiority of the IAF, its quality of flight crew and pilots along with its planes, such a change could develop into a long-term problem.

During the preliminary contacts with Israel in recent years, the Americans raised a number of mitigating circumstances. Israel and Saudi Arabia, said the Americans, are now in the same camp that is fighting Iran on one side, and the Sunni jihadist groups on the other. Reinforcing the Saudi military capability also strengthens the Sunni alliance they lead, and forces Iran to carefully consider its actions, including investing in defensive systems (in response to the Saudis) instead of their offensive capabilities.

Saudi Arabia would have bought the weapons it thought it needed anyway, said the Americans. It was better for the sale to be under American control and supervision and not through the Russians. Another American claim touched on the practical military capabilities of the Saudis: An army that has found it difficult for years to reach any real achievements against the Houthi rebels in Yemen cannot be a real threat to Israel, even after the giant arms deal.

The United States and Israel have still not yet agreed upon the details of the military aid agreement signed last year, which provides $3.8 billion a year in aid to Israel for a decade, from 2019. Discussions, which are being handled on the Israeli side by the National Security Council, the Defense Ministry and the army’s Planning Directorate, will resume this summer. The total value of the deal with Israel is just under one-third that of the Saudi arms deal. It is unlikely the Trump administration will want to increase it under the current circumstances.

The Saudi deal means foreign money flowing into the U.S. economy. In the Israeli military aid agreement, American money is basically brokering U.S. money moving from pocket to pocket, from the foreign-aid budget to domestic defense manufacturers. Yet it is likely that Israel will try to leverage the Saudi deal into getting approval for requests that were rejected in the past, particularly for precision-guided munitions and advanced systems for the IAF. Reinforcing Israel’s multi-layered missile and rocket defenses will also be on the agenda.

Israel cannot stop the Saudi arms deal. But the replacement of the Saudi royal family by a hostile, radical Islamist regime is not inconceivable. Each time the possibility of Israel ceding territory to the Palestinian Authority is mentioned, right-wing Israeli politicians — somewhat justifiably — raise the prospect of the PA government being replaced by Hamas, putting militants armed with rifles and rockets just a few kilometers from Tel Aviv’s northern suburbs.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu after the U.S. president's speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

It is against this background that Israel’s silence — with the exception of Lieberman’s generalized comments — about the planned provision of such a massive amount of advanced U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia’s not very stable government is interesting. Rulers, as the shock waves that have been hitting the Arab world for six years now have reminded us, come and go. But F-15s, precision-guided munitions and cybertechnology remain for the use of the next regime.

What did Trump leave behind?

What remains of Trump’s visit to Israel after the circus decamped for Rome? The president, who showered compliments on the Israelis and the Palestinians in return for excessive displays of sycophancy, did not significantly move the needle in bilateral relations. Before he entered politics, in addition to his real-estate deals and “The Apprentice,” Trump was most famous for owning and running beauty contests.

In his speech this week, Trump — whose vocabulary it seems is only diminishing over time — sounded like a beauty queen wishing for world peace. If only he had proposed that his friend Benjamin extend his hand to his other friend Mahmoud, then somehow things would have come together. True, if everyone holds hands, there will be fewer hands free to stab each other in the back.

In an almost heartwarming manner, the Israeli right and left both tried to locate signs in Trump’s speech to prove the visitor was a president dear to their hearts. In light of Trump’s avoiding any mention of the outline of a peace agreement, or even the vision of two states at all, it seems that for now the right wing came out on top. But the entire debate now seems out to be a barren one. Every forecast about the question of where Trump is heading is just a wild guess, as he proved in the case of the American cruise missile attack on Syria. In a great number of cases it seemed that Trump too did not know what he was going to say just an hour later. But the thought that his administration is capable of succeeding where the two Bush administrations, as well as Clinton and Obama failed, seems too far-fetched.

Diplomatic brokering between Israel and the Palestinians requires experience, great attention, endless patience and devotion to the small details. Trump has none of these, and in the meantime neither does his small staff for the region. Most important, probably, is that the minute Trump returns to Washington the storm that refuses to die out over Russian interference in the election campaign is waiting for him. With the FBI director he fired, James Comey, about to testify before the Senate and the National Security Adviser who quit, Michael Flynn, hanging for dear life to the Fifth Amendment and keeping his right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination, how will Trump have any interest in dealing with the governance arrangements in the Holy Basin in Jerusalem?

Unlike his predecessor Obama, Trump understood he must speak to Israelis with warmth and praise. The idea of harnessing the Saudis and the UAE, alongside the United States, to support an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is logical too. It seems that Trump has the appropriate suspicions about Iran’s intentions, which is the evil and dangerous spirit behind many of the worrying processes in the region. But the jump from this to a practical peace agreement that can be implemented is enormous.

Over the past year, both before and after Trump entered the White House, he had already managed to contradict himself over the nature of Islam, China’s economic moves, the importance of the NATO alliance and an endless number of other issues. His whims, such as his tendency to take everything personally and hold a grudge, has helped him build a certain amount of deterrence to both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to the Pentagon, March 7, 2017.
Cliff Owen/AP

It is possible that such fears of Trump will be enough to create at least a semblance of a new peace process. But from that point and on, especially when the suspicions about the new president at home over obstruction of justice in the Russian election campaign affair are growing stronger, the chances are also growing that the peace process efforts will lose out. As the Book of Proverbs said of rulers, long before this president: “As vapours and wind without rain, so is he that boasteth himself of a false gift. By long forbearing is a ruler persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.”