Iran threat changes U.S., Israeli thinking

jerusalem | In stark contrast to the past, when Israel and its American allies in Washington vehemently opposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem appears to be on board with a new Bush administration plan to sells billions of dollars of weapons to the Saudis.

The reason for the change: Iran.

With the threat of Iran looming ever larger, both the United States and Israel are taking steps to increase the military might capable of countering Iran and its radical forces in the region.

The United States intends to increase military aid to its allies in the Middle East to the tune of around $60 billion over the coming decade. Most of the American weapons would go to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.

At the same time, Israel plans to dramatically increase its own defense budget by more than $11 billion during the same period. The changes Israel intends to make in the Israel Defense Forces with the bigger budgets are said to be the most far-reaching in years. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has redefined the threats Israel is facing and wants to restructure the armed forces accordingly.

On July 29, the government approved a hike of $10.6 billion in defense spending over the next 10 years, but it postponed a vote on an additional $1.6 billion that Barak wants for 2008.

Under President Bush’s plan, U.S. military aid to Israel over the next decade would increase from $26 billion to $30 billion. Israel wants to use part of this to purchase state-of-the-art American F-35 fighters and the F-22 stealth bomber, which to date the United States has not sold to any other country.

In the same period, Egypt would receive $13 billion in military aid under the Bush administration plan. That aid would keep Egypt at its current levels despite some moves in Washington to reduce it.

The most dramatic departure for the Americans, though, would be a $20 billion arms sale to the Gulf countries, mostly to Saudi Arabia.

Some U.S. legislators oppose the sale because, they say, the Saudis are allowing Sunni militants in the kingdom to attack U.S. forces in Iraq and are afraid to intervene, fearing the militants might turn on them. U.S. officials say the administration will insist that the Saudis clamp down on this and show a higher profile in peace overtures toward Israel, including a commitment to attend the regional peace conference the United States is planning for September.

Despite intense Israeli opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the past, most notably in the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fully accepts the argument that the arms are part of a major U.S. effort to counter Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions.

Iran is a primary backer of Hamas and Hezbollah, terrorist groups that sit on Israel’s southern and northern borders. Iran has also made moves in recent months to keep Syria in its orbit and prevent Saudi Arabia from playing an active role in the latest U.S.-sponsored Middle East peacemaking initiative.

The Saudi arms deal was one of the key issues Olmert discussed with Bush during a June visit to Washington. Bush assured the Israeli leader that the Saudis would not be given any weapons Israel doesn’t have, and that they would not be allowed to deploy systems close enough to the border to put Israeli targets in range.

The clincher for Olmert, according to diplomatic sources, was the corresponding increase offered by the president in military aid to Israel. This and the promise of super-sophisticated weaponry will help the United States keep its commitment to maintain Israel’s technological edge over any of its potential enemies.

Still, the Israeli right has offered some muted criticism of the U.S.-Saudi deal. Former Gen. Yossi Peled, the Likud Party candidate for defense minister, warned that in the event of a radical takeover in Saudi Arabia, the arms could be turned on Israel. Government spokesmen counter that Israel could deal with whatever military problems that may arise.

Due to the multiple threats Israel is facing in the region, Barak wants a significant increase in the size of the land army. He wants to create two more ground divisions, which would enable an overwhelming IDF response on any front, presumably even against the Saudis, if things were to go wrong in the kingdom.

The IDF has already carried out some of Barak’s reforms. The emergency supplies found wanting during the Lebanon war have largely been replenished and huge land exercises have been conducted.

But Israel needs to be ready for more than a repeat of last summer’s war. At the very least, it has to take into account the possibility of simultaneous hostilities from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iran.