Weapons for Saudis / Why Israel Shouldn't Be Jealous

The huge deal through which the United States will provide Saudi Arabia $60 billion in military equipment has been in the works for many months.

In practice, it involves the Obama administration's fulfillment of a commitment made during George W. Bush's presidency, designed to buttress American alliances in the Persian Gulf against the backdrop of the growing threat from Iran.

The Saudi shopping list could engender a certain amount of jealousy in the Israeli defense establishment, which is by no means treated shabbily when it comes to the budget it's awarded - but it is hard to compete with coffers funded by oil revenues (and assuring a continued supply of oil is of course one of the incentives for the Americans to supply arms in such quantities ).

Saudi Arabia is the U.S. arms industry's best customer, even ahead of Israel, and at a time of economic difficulty, the ability to provide employment to tens of thousands of its country's workers will certainly be apparent to the U.S. Congress, who will be asked to approve the deal next month.

As noted by Yiftah Shapir of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, the Saudis are giving priority to offensive weaponry while their neighbors in the Gulf have generally preferred defensive weapons systems from the Americans. In the past, deals like the current one have aroused major discomfort in Israel.

This time, too, as Barak Ravid reported in Haaretz in July, Israel had reservations which it conveyed to the Americans. From recent reports in the American press, however, it is difficult to determine if these reservations have been addressed.

Israel may be concerned by the possibility that the Saudis would get advanced aircraft, long-range radar and long-range anti-aircraft systems. As far as is known, the anti-aircraft systems are not included in the new Saudi arms deal. On the other hand, the deal taking shape for the United States' sale to Israel of 20 advanced F-35 airplanes is meant to maintain Israel's qualitative advantage. This is in view of the fact that the Saudis will now be getting primarily less up-to-date models of F-15s, along with the upgrade of some of its older planes.

While the current deal is indeed sizeable - including fighter planes, many dozens of combat helicopters and transport helicopters - under the current circumstances, in the shadow of the shared threat from Iran, Israel will likely need to show restraint regarding most of the items included in the deal. As in the past, Israel will try to extract perks of its own from the Americans in the face of the Iranians, and as a result of growing Saudi military power.

Another more specific concern for Israel involves the prospect that a lone Saudi pilot could commit an aerial suicide attack inspired by Al-Qaida propaganda. In the past, there was an understanding with the Americans that fighter aircraft would not be stationed at the Tabuk base in northern Saudi Arabia, which is relatively close to Eilat. The Saudis have been in violation of that understanding and, in addition to advanced European aircraft stationed there, American F-15s can be found at the base from time to time as well.