Israel didn’t oppose a $60 billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia, in part because the Pentagon agreed to sell the Israelis at least 20 new Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US) F-35 jets, according to the new book by Robert Gates.
The 2010 sale of 154 new and modernized Boeing Co. (BA:US) F-15 jets and attack helicopters, plus parts and munitions, “especially exercised” the Israeli leadership as “it came at a bad time in the relationship,” the former defense secretary wrote.
The sale came after the Obama administration had “leaned heavily” on Israel to impose a 10-month freeze on building settlements in the West Bank, which Israel took from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, according to Gates. Israel said in March 2010 that it would continue building settlements.
A series of meetings with Gates, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu resulted in a working group to ensure that the Saudi sale didn’t erode Israel’s “qualitative military edge” against its Arab neighbors. Maintaining that edge is a long-standing U.S. foreign policy objective.
By July 2010, after back-and-forth discussions that also focused on providing more U.S. missile defense equipment to Israel, “Barak talked to Netanyahu,” and “Bibi had agreed not to object to the Saudi sale -- in exchange for more military equipment, including 20 additional F-35s,” Gates wrote in “Duty,” scheduled for publication on Jan. 14.
Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Laura Siebert said today in an e-mail that the current Israeli order is for 19 jets.
Most of the media attention on “Duty” has focused on Gates’ criticism of President Barack Obama’s approach to the war in Afghanistan. The F-35 episode -- an example of how foreign military sales are used as foreign policy tools -- is buried in the 594-page book.
In this case, the issue was balancing the needs of two Middle East allies against a common adversary, Iran, and at the same time dealing with the enmity between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Gates’s balancing act also strengthened alliance support for the F-35, the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program. It resulted in a $2.75 billion contract for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, the world’s No. 1 defense contractor, and new work for Israeli companies such as Elbit Systems Ltd. (ESLT) Haifa-based Elbit is developing the helmet for use by F-35 pilots with Rockwell Collins Inc. based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In the book, Gates also has some criticism for Israel. “I believe Israel’s strategic situation is worsening, its own actions contributing to its isolation” he wrote.
Gates labeled as “strategically stupid” the January 2010 assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai, “however morally justified” it was, because “the incompetently run operation was quickly discovered and Israel fingered as responsible.”
The incident cost Israel “the quiet cooperation of the United Arab Emirates on security matters,” he wrote. The U.A.E. has been a conduit for financial aid to some Islamic extremist groups, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
“As Israel’s neighbors acquire ever more sophisticated weapons and their publics become ever more hostile, I, as a very strong friend and supporter of Israel believe Jerusalem needs to think anew about its strategic environment,” Gates wrote.
Gates’s discussion of the F-15 sale, which reads like a diplomatic cable, provides a rare look at the negotiations with a longtime American ally about a touchy regional arms issue.
When Netanyahu “complained about the number of F-15s the Saudis would be buying or upgrading, I pointedly asked him, ‘When did Saudi Arabia ever attack Israel? How long would those planes continue to work without U.S. support?’” Gates wrote.
According to Gates, Netanyahu responded by asking, “What about a counterbalancing investment in our military? How do we compensate on the Israeli side?”
Gates wrote: “Exasperated, I shot back that no U.S. administration had done more, in concrete ways, for Israel’s strategic defense than Obama’s.”
“I used the line that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Gates wrote. Netanyahu “replied acidly, ‘In the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my frenemy.’”
For his part, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah wanted to buy from the U.S. because “he wanted all the Saudi money to go toward military equipment and not into a Swiss bank,” Gates wrote.
The king “explicitly told me that he saw the huge purchase as an investment in a long-term strategic relationship,” while “at the same time, Abdullah was very cautious about any kind of overt military cooperation or planning” that the Iranians “might consider an act of war.”
The package includes 84 new F-15s and upgrades to 70 more in the Saudi inventory at a cost of $30 billion, and helicopter sales totaling about $30 billion that included spare parts, training simulators, long-term logistics support and some munitions.
It also includes versions of Chicago-based Boeing’s satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, which the Saudis first bought in 2008.
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