image The unseen signatories to Mideast deals are Lockheed and Boeing. Photo: Flash90

Sign Accords, Get Weapons

Where Peace Dividends Have Wings

By Amir Oren

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was obviously at least half-joking when he cracked that his department would ensure a smooth transition to the next administration, the “second term” of President Donald Trump, who is yet to concede his elections loss to Joe Biden. Pompeo was surely trying to stay within Trump’s talking points while conveying the message that the US Foreign Service will fulfill its professional obligation to take stock of the global situation and prepare briefing books for the next Commander-in-Chief and his team, including a new Secretary, as the politically ambitious Pompeo would have left for other pursuits anyway.

For his farewell tour in the Middle East, following short visits to France, Turkey (where he was to see only a religious figure in Istanbul and stay away from Ankara officials, “due to scheduling conflicts״), Pompeo chose to touch down in Israel, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In Qatar he is supposed to lean on his hosts to end their dispute with their Gulf neighbors, led by the Saudis. He will make the same effort with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – a somewhat awkward meeting, what with Pompeo fresh out of Istanbul, where Saudi author Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi agents suspected of following MBS’ orders.

There is another aspect to the Saudi leg of Pompeo’s visit – an arms deal worth $9.8 Billion to Boeing for refurbishing the Saudi Air Force’s F-15 fighter fleet. This sale, which has to do with systems already in the customer’s service, is less controversial than the one just preceding it, to the Emirates, which breaks new ground – or air – by providing new F-35’s and attack drones.

There is a double symmetry involved in the Gulf arms sales. Boeing must get its rightful share when its main competitor, Lockheed, has a lock on the UAE deal, which in its turn must be balanced with Israeli concerns and requests.

The two senior Pentagon officials who negotiated with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his associates a draft Memorandum of Understanding on measures to make up for whatever qualitative loss Israel could suffer by giving up its F-35 Mideast monopoly, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his Policy Undersecretary James Anderson, were forced out by Trump last week. The fate of the draft is thus unknown. It was handled by officials Trump got rid of (though for other and unrelated reasons), Congress was not consulted and the Biden team is months from being nominated, approved and manning their battle stations.

Pompeo, however, regardless of being Esper’s classmate at West Point, is still there, or rather here this week, and it fell to his aides to justify the UAE sale.

In a briefing ahead of flying East, a senior Near East affairs official, unnamed according to ground rules though quite known to participating media, made the following case:

“Because the UAE is an important friend and partner, we will do everything we can to help it counter the Iranian regime.  This includes the proposed sale of $23 billion worth of F-35 aircraft, MQ-9B unmanned aerial systems, and air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions under the FMS system that the Secretary directed the department to notify to Congress on November 10th. These proposed sales echo the enhanced defense cooperation we embarked upon with Egypt in the wake of the 1979 Camp David Accords, as well as our closer security relation with Jordan following its normalization of relations with Israel in 1994”.

Intentional or not, this choice of words downplayed the significance of Israel’s agreements with its two former enemies. A state of war was replaced by peace treaties, an earth-shaking transformation in Israeli terms. The much-touted normalization accords with the UAE and Bahrain are nice to have. They carry strategic and economic promises. But these Gulf monarchies, which gained their independence in the early 1970’s, have never been responsible for a single Israeli casualty and have not sent expeditionary forces or reinforcements to the front, Iraq- or Libya-style.

In the mid-1960’s, Israel was approached by the Johnson administration with dilemma. Jordan’s King Hussein, under pressure by Egypt’s President Nasser, needed aircraft and armor for his military. If the US and the UK refuse to sell him these weapons, he will have to turn to the Soviets, which would be tantamount to collaborating with Nasser and with his mischief making Northern neighbors in Syria. Johnson asked Prime Minister Eshkol whether American tanks should be sold to Jordan.

Eshkol had to weigh several factors. In return for his acquiescence, Israel will get second-hand American tanks from West Germany, a promise that from now on, and contrary to its policy in Israel’s first 17 years, the US would become one of its major arms suppliers, and Hussein’s commitment to keep his tanks on the East Bank of the Jordan River, lest they be dangerously close to West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel Air Force bases.

Johnson’s emissaries pointed out that with arms comes influence. Hussein must renew his arsenal, lest his trusted officers betray this trust and rebel. Better that the weapons not come with Soviet or Nasserite influence.

American arms were given to Jordan since 1957, but without inquiring about Israel’s opinion. But in 1965, aware of the political clout of American Jews, Johnson essentially let Eshkol decide – arms for both Jordan and Israel, or for neither.

There were also two American wishes – that Israel not use its US-made fighters and tanks to pre-empt an Arab move such as a diversion of Jordan River waters, and that it join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation regime being negotiated, thereby forsaking whatever Atomic dreams it had. Israel managed to wiggle out of these two.

Eshkol decided that the breakthrough in US-Israel defense relations outweighed other considerations and consented to the Jordanian tank deal. Two years later Hussein could not withstand a combined Egyptian-Syrian pressure, joined the fight against Israel, sent his armor west across the river and lost both tanks and Bank.

So to correct the record, or the State Department’s faulty memory, arms for Jordan with an Israeli nod preceded by three decades their formal peace, as distinct from covert intelligence, security and highest-level contacts, with Hussein warning Golda Meir of imminent war in late September 1973.

The lesson and the policy, however, have nit been overtaken by events. The “Peace Dividend”, which in the 1990’s and the end of the Cold War referred to the ability to reallocate defense budgets to social and economic uses, has taken on another meaning when translated into Arabic and Hebrew – if you normalize your relations, you will be eligible to buy (or get, in Israel’s case) new weapons, to be used to deter or defeat a third party, Iran.

Not all Senators are for it, but because this equation persisted through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, there is no reason to believe that Pompeo is the last Secretary of State bringing this news to the Middle East.