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Lawmakers seek conditions on arms sale to Saudis

A bipartisan House group wants to try to prevent the weaponry — a record $60-billion purchase — from potentially being used against Israeli, U.S. or allied forces.

November 15, 2010|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is demanding more assurances from the Obama administration that a record $60-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia won't give the kingdom new military capabilities that threaten Israel.

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, 198 members of the House of Representatives complained about Saudi policies, and said they "would like to know how these sales will affect Israel's qualitative military edge."

House members aren't likely to block the deal, officials said, but want conditions applied to try to prevent the weaponry from potentially being used against Israeli, U.S. or allied forces.

Lawmakers noted, for example, that the administration could require modifications in aircraft guidance systems and other electronics to make it harder for the weapons to be used against Israeli targets. The U.S. also could require that the aircraft be based in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, to give Israel time to prepare for defense in the event of an attack, lawmakers said.

The deal would allow the Saudi government to buy up to 84 new F-15 fighters, to upgrade 70 more, and to purchase attack helicopters and satellite-guided bombs.

The administration has said the sales are aimed at helping the Saudis deter military aggression by Iran, which is expected to become even more assertive if it ultimately is able to construct nuclear weapons.

The letter was primarily the work of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) and ranking minority committee member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), a signer, said he was optimistic that the administration would be able to meet the lawmakers' requests because of the leverage provided by the size of the deal.

"This giant weapons sale is obviously critical to Saudi national security," he said.

The United States has long sought to assure, in weighing military sales in the Middle East, that Israel would retain a qualitative military edge. Israel hasn't objected to the sales, which have been discussed by U.S. and Israeli defense officials.

The group of lawmakers raising questions included liberals and conservatives, and the letter faults several Saudi policies. It says that Riyadh has not moved to normalize relations with Israel, has lagged on financial support to the Palestinian Authority and has not done enough to pressure Iran to curtail its nuclear program.

The administration is also promising Israel $3 billion worth of jet fighter sales as part of a deal to win its support for a 90-day freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. The White House hopes the freeze can open the way to a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

paul.richter@latimes.com

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