Israeli Defense Chief 'Not at Peace' With Trump's Massive U.S.-Saudi Arms Deal

Worried at 'Middle East arms race', Lieberman says Israel has 'ways of dealing with this,' says intel leak to Russians has been handled

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, converses Avigdor Lieberman, Ashdod, 2013.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, converses Avigdor Lieberman, Ashdod, 2013. Credit: REUTERS
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is worried about the "arms race" taking shape in the Middle East, he said Wednesday morning, in his first public comment on the massive deal U.S. President Donald Trump signed with Saudi Arabia.

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"I'm not at peace with the arms race in the Middle East. Weapons sales in the region have reached $215 billion and this is no small sum," the minister said on Army Radio.

Israel is keeping watch on developments, Lieberman said, adding, "We have ways to deal with this too."

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Referring to claims that Trump leaked Israeli intelligence on ISIS activities in Syria to Russian officials visiting the White House, Lieberman said, “Everything we needed to work out with our friends in the United States, we did. We looked into it and cleared the air on the entire issue, and there is no need to go on."

A small change was made, Lieberman said, presumably referring to procedure, and added, "Our cooperation on intelligence remains unmatched.”

Trump said during his visit to Israel on Monday that he “never mentioned the word or the name 'Israel'” during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Washington's defense cooperation agreement with the Saudis, worth $110 billion effective immediately and up to $350 billion over 10 years, includes tanks, combat ships, missile defense systems, radar and communications, and cybersecurity technology.

"The huge Saudi purchase and the arms race don’t sit with me well," Lieberman said. "Nonetheless, we are following developments and are aware and have ways of dealing with this."

Responding to the deadly bombing on Monday night in Manchester, Lieberman said the root cause of such attacks is extremism among Muslim youths who are not integrated into society and added that nothing will change until these residents are ready to adopt "universal, European values."

The defense chief said he doubts the attack, which killed 22 people and wounded more than 59, will have any impact on European counterterrorism tactics because of the continent's "politically correct" character.

Following the Saudi deal, Trump promised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their meeting on Monday that the U.S. will preserve Israel’s "qualitative military edge" over other militaries in the Middle East.

On the flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had told reporters that the deal "does not contradict the American commitment to preserve Israel’s qualitative military advantage" and he feels confident that Israeli concerns about this can be assuaged.

After Trump left Israel for Rome and the Vatican, the White House released a statement summarizing the meetings between Trump and Netanyahu. “President Trump underscored the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” and discussed American efforts to upgrade the military capabilities of its allies in the Middle East to face Iran, the statement said.

Last year, the U.S. agreed to increase its aid to Israel to $3.8 billion, as of 2019. Israel hasn't said yet how it means to use the money: its decisions may well be affected by the Saudi deal. Last year the Israel Air Force reportedly angled for new fueling jets, more F-15 fighters or alternatively, a third squadron of F-35s. Some army officers think however the IAF should cool its jets and more should be invested in ground forces, for instance in manufacturing the "Eitan" armored carrier, a recent Israeli development.

AP contributed to this report.

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