Despite splits, U.S. still arms Israel

July 8, 2009 at 2:15 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, July 8 (UPI) -- Despite differences between the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel over Iran and the Middle East peace process, and human-rights groups' allegations of war crimes against the Palestinians, Washington continues to provide the Jewish state with billions of dollars' worth of arms and equipment every year.

And there's no sign that this will change any time soon.

Indeed, Obama has endorsed a military aid package worth up to $30 billion, without conditions, over the next 10 years that was set up by the administration of President George W. Bush in 2007.

That represents a 25 percent increase in the vast U.S. military and security assistance given to Israel during the Bush administration.

With annual military aid of some $2 billion, Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. largesse in the world.

Arms sales have largely been an important instrument of U.S. foreign policy for many years. But these days there are new dynamics to consider.

With the U.S. military transforming itself from a force designed to fight major conventional inter-state wars with armored phalanxes, carrier task forces and the biggest, most powerful air force in the world to one able to counter agile non-state insurgent forces, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, the vast U.S. defense industry needs to find other markets for its tanks, warships and fighter-bombers.

Hence the huge $30 billion package for Israel, which should help keep production lines for the F-35 advanced stealth fighter and other big-ticket items going for a while.

Most of this military aid is simply a credit line to U.S. defense contractors since the money has to be spent on American systems.

As it is, the Israelis were only marked down for a $30 billion package because the Bush administration wanted to provide a weapons package for the Arab states, mainly Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf, amounting to $20 billion over 10 years.

That, it said, was to bolster U.S. regional allies against an expansionist Iran. To do that meant giving Gulf states access to advanced technology that had largely been reserved for the Israelis.

Thus Israel had to be kept sweet so it did not use its considerable clout in the U.S. Congress to block the proposed sales to the Arabs, as the Jewish state has done many times in the past to ensure its qualitative edge.

But when the Israelis invaded the Gaza Strip on Dec. 28, 2008, in considerable force with the declared objective of halting rocket attacks by the fundamentalist Hamas faction that ruled the territory, but ultimately seeking to crush its military capability, human-rights groups appealed to the outgoing Bush administration to halt arms supplies to the Jewish state.

Amnesty International and others argued that the Israeli forces were committing war crimes by killing large numbers of civilians -- men, women and children -- and using U.S.-supplied weapons to do it.

Bush demurred. Obama also refused after he took office in January 2009. That was two days after Israel called off its 22-day war, apparently so as not to offend the incoming U.S. president.

"Obama has thus far failed to realize that the problem in the Middle East is that there are too many deadly weapons in the region, not too few," says Stephen Zunes, who heads the Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of San Francisco and is a longtime regional affairs analyst.

"Instead of simply wanting Israel to have an adequate deterrent against potential military threats, Obama insists the United States should guarantee that Israel maintain a qualitative military edge," Zunes added in an assessment published in Foreign Policy in Focus in March.

"Thanks to this overwhelming advantage over its neighbors, Israeli forces were able to launch devastating wars against Israel's Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors in recent years."

That was a reference to a 34-day war Israel fought with Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas, backed by Iran and Syria, in July and August 2006.

Now, the Americans are concerned that while they are trying to open a dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program, the Israelis, who see that as a mortal threat to their existence as a nation, will launch pre-emptive strikes against Iran -- using U.S.-supplied weapons systems.

In fiscal 2008, U.S. foreign military sales totaled $36 billion, 50 percent up on 2007. According to Frida Berrigan of the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative, sales in the first half of 2009 reached $27 billion and could hit $40 billion for the year.

Some experts predict that over the next decade arms will be the single biggest U.S. export, with Israel taking a big chunk, such as up to 75 of the new F-35 stealth fighters.

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