On the occasion of his first trip abroad, US President Donald Trump signed an approximately $110 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia on Saturday, which according to the White House is the largest in American history.
The full extent of the deal is still somewhat difficult to determine, as the specifics have yet to be released. However, the US State Department said it will include advanced air defense systems, ships, helicopters, intelligence-gathering aircraft, tanks, artillery and cybersecurity systems.
“This package of defense equipment and services supports the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of Iranian threats,” a White House official said.
It will also bolster the kingdom’s “ability to contribute to counter-terrorism operations across the region, reducing the burden on the US military to conduct those operations,” the official added.
Beyond the general types of weapons and systems that will be sold, many of the specifics about the deal have yet to be released. However, a large influx of advanced military technology into the region should be of the utmost concern to Israel and therefore to the United States, which must preserve the Jewish state’s “qualitative military edge” — its military advantage over surrounding Middle East countries — as required by US law.
And yet, among most Israeli officials there doesn’t seem to be much concern at all, let alone of the utmost variety.
There have been some grumblings of discontent among Israeli lawmakers, though they have been relatively toothless.
Likud Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz offered by far the harshest criticism, noting on Sunday that “Saudi Arabia is a hostile country” so the weapons deal “should definitely disrupt our capabilities.”
Minister Ayoub Kara said in a statement that despite the improving ties between Israel and Sunni Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, there is “still a risk to Israel’s military superiority.”
Kara added that he would bring up the issue with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in future ministerial meetings.
Steinitz, as well as Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz and Likud MK Avi Dichter, also stressed the need to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge.”
But Katz, who is a member of the security cabinet, couched his trepidation over the preservation of Israel’s qualitative military edge in praise for Trump’s visit to the region, which he said “presents an opportunity to advance regional security and economic cooperation as a foundation for regional peace.”
Keeping the edge
The need to preserve the “qualitative military edge,” or QME, generally means that these types of arms deals take months to prepare. Israel either must be sure that it still has the advantage, despite the deal, or the US needs to supply Israel with military equipment to give it back the edge.
The Pentagon first speaks with the Israeli Defense Ministry. The results of those negotiations are then presented to the US Congress for yet another round of approvals, during which time Israel can again request changes.
There’s a level of “bargaining” to these negotiations, according to Joshua Teitelbaum, a professor of modern Middle East history at Bar Ilan University’s Department of Middle East Studies.
In the past, Israel has therefore had little reason to complain about massive arms deals with Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states. If Jerusalem had an issue with an aspect of the agreement, it would have already brought it up, Teitelbaum said.
However, in this case, it’s not clear how those negotiations took place in time for Saturday’s deal.
Before this deal, the largest weapons sale by the United States to Saudi Arabia was signed in 2010, valued at approximately $60 billion.
That deal took well over a year to secure, according to a source familiar with the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The agreement signed on Saturday, which is nearly twice the size of the 2010 deal, was reached in less than half the time, as Trump has only been in office for four months.
In addition, many of the positions within the Pentagon that are needed to conduct the negotiations with Israel have yet to be filled by the Trump administration.
On the Israeli side, Amos Gilad, the former head of the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, who was in charge of the negotiations in the 2010 deal, left his position shortly after Trump took office, leaving behind a relative newcomer: Zohar Palti, who previously served in the Mossad.
The Defense Ministry did not respond to The Times of Israel’s request for comment on whether it was able to voice concerns over the US-Saudi deal.
Gilad, speaking to The Times of Israel over the phone, offered a simple explanation: “With Trump everything works fast. I’ve got no answer beyond that.”
(Gilad said he could not say if he played a role in discussions about the current US-Saudi deal.)
Not hurting, maybe helping
Despite the record time, in addition to the record size, of Saturday’s deal, other than Steinitz’s and Kara’s limited concerns, precious little dissent has been voiced against the arms sale. Most have instead described it as either benign or potentially beneficial.
“How can it hurt? For now, there’s an alliance between the US and the Arab world against Iran,” Gilad said.
The countries receiving weapons from the US “are not the ones that harm our security,” he added.
According to Yaakov Amidror, the former national security adviser to the prime minister, Israel has no reason to worry about the massive Saudi-US arms deals, arguing that it is not new for Washington to provide Riyadh with advanced weapons systems.
Gilad too pointed to a 2011 arms deal by the Obama administration that gave the Saudis “154 airplanes, which is far more dangerous.”
If anything, Amidror argued, this latest arms deal could help pave the way for Israeli-Arab cooperation in the future.
“It does not change the balance [of power] in the Middle East,” Amidror said. “The US administration is very sensitive about keeping Israel’s military edge. That was the case for previous US administrations, and I am sure it’s also true for the current administration.”
He pointed to the F-35 fighter jet, five of which have already landed in Israel — and not anywhere else. “This is part of the efforts the US administration makes to keep Israel’s qualitative military edge and even enhance it,” Amidror said at a conference call for journalists organized by Media Central.
One of the most notable aspects of the deal — beyond its scope — is that the Saudis will soon be the proud owners of the Americans’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system.
The THAAD is considered top of the line for air defense, with interceptors capable of taking out short-to-medium range missiles and a radar system that has a range of approximately 600 miles (1,000 kilometers), which from northern Saudi Arabia could easily cover all of Israel.
This is the same type of battery that the US recently deployed in South Korea to help defend it against an increasingly aggressive Pyongyang. It’s impressive radar range is likely the reason why the Chinese were miffed to have one suddenly appear on their doorstep.
Teitelbaum, who is also a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said that the THAAD could be seen not only not as a threat to Israel’s security, but as a potential boon to it.
For starters, the system’s interceptors do not carry an explosive warhead. They bring down missiles purely from the force of their impact. So there is little chance it can be used aggressively.
The missile defense battery would likely not be able to intercept a ballistic missile headed towards Israel from, say, Iran as it is designed to shoot down them down as they reach their target, not as they are still traveling. However, the system’s advanced radar system could tip Israel off to an incoming attack, Teitelbaum noted.
Closer to America, closer to Israel
During former president Barack Obama’s tenure in office, the US also made weapons deals worth “billions and billions of dollars” to the Saudis, but he was nevertheless perceived in Riyadh as being more interested in warming up to the Iranians.
According to Teitelbaum, the size and quality of Trump’s deal was designed to send a message: “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
The weapons deal is a sign of “rehabilitation,” he said.
To the Saudis, Obama seemed to be trying to strike a balance between Riyadh and Tehran. Not so with Trump, according to Teitelbaum.
Trump’s speech on Sunday, in which he slammed Iran and exalted Saudi Arabia, was an additional aspect of the message that the days of cozying up to the Shiites are over.
Moreover, this type of deal is not a quick transaction, Teitelbaum said.
“It’s not just that the US hands over a plane. It’s training, it’s parts, it’s maintenance. It cements the relationship for decades to come,” he said.
In addition to the Saudis, making this huge purchase from the United States, the Kingdom also purchased the largest oil refinery in the United States earlier this month, Teitelbaum noted.
The Bar Ilan University professor also noted the positive message to the family-centric Saudi Arabia of the president’s decision to have his son-in-law Jared Kushner take the lead on negotiating the deal with King Salman’s son and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman.
The Saudis are signalling that they are “putting the bad blood of the Obama administration behind them,” Teitelbaum said.
Amidror said that beefing up Saudi Arabia’s military against Iran, a common enemy with Israel, might increase the Saudis’ “self confidence” and their readiness to expand their engagement with the Jewish state in an anti-Iran alliance.
“Who knows? Maybe it will lead to a different relationship in the Middle East.”
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.