THE timid opposition in Congress to the Bush Administration's announced sale of 72 highly sophisticated F-15E jet fighters to Saudi Arabia shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.
Congressional support for Israel may require opposing the Palestinians' right to self-determination, underwriting Israeli settlements and occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza, and even banning the Palestinians from operating an information office in Washington. But selling sophisticated wea-pons to a hostile neighbor of Israel's has rarely been considered problematic.
This is the same Congress that has banned any formal United States government contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the effective Palestinian government-in-exile, despite the PLO's recognition of Israel, a step the Saudis still refuse to take. Adding to the irony, the Saudis continue to bankroll the extremist Palestinian Hamas movement, which violently opposes the PLO's support of the US-sponsored peace process.
When it comes to supporting American arms manufacturers, however, principled consistency quickly falls to the wayside.
It is noteworthy that the pro-Israel lobby did not oppose this latest sale to Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the Arab monarchies have been relatively quiet regarding increased US arms aid to Israel. In many respects, US policy serves the interests of both well. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States all share an interest in curbing radical nationalism and preserving the regional status quo - by military force, if necessary.
For Israel, Arab militarism serves as an excuse for continued repression in the occupied territories and resistance to demands for territorial compromise. For autocratic Arab leaders, Israeli military power serves as an excuse for their lack of internal democracy and inability to address badly needed social and economic reforms.
At the same time Congress was letting the arms sales to Saudi Arabia glide through, lawmakers were approving record amounts of foreign aid to Israel. Yet just as arms transfers to the Arab monarchies do little to help ordinary people in those countries, the tens of billions of dollars of American aid to the Israeli government in recent years have not been particularly beneficial to Israel, either.
Indeed, such a huge infusion of capital to such a small country has not led to any real economic growth. The economic aid has gone primarily to finance nonproductive sectors, such as the illegal settlements in the occupied territories and the military, as well as loan repayments to American banks.
The $1.8 billion in annual military aid to Israel is in fact a credit line to American arms manufacturers. It actually ends up costing Israel two to three times the aid amount in training for operators, staffing and maintenance, procurement of spare parts, and other related costs. The overall impact is to increase Israeli economic and military dependency on the US and to further drain Israel's fragile economy.
Matti Peled, a retired Israeli major general and former Knesset member, recently reported that as far as he can tell the $1.8 billion figure was arrived at "out of thin air."
Such an amount is far more than Israel needs to replenish its stocks and is not related to any specific security requirements, reinforcing the impression that the aid is little more than a US government subsidy for American arms manufacturers.
The benefit to American defense contractors is multiplied, because every major arms transfer to Israel creates a new demand by Arab states - most of which can pay hard currency through petrodollars - for additional American weapons to challenge Israel.
It also works in the other direction: With the approval of F-15E's for Saudi Arabia, Israel openly stated its expectation for a new batch of sophisticated and expensive weaponry to be sent courtesy of the American taxpayer.
The resulting arms race is a bonanza for US manufacturers. Despite calls for restraints, arms transfers to the Middle East announced by the Bush Administration since the end of the Gulf war have topped $25 billion, which marks an all-time high.
General Peled questions the role of pro-Israel groups in US foreign aid to the region, going as far as to say that if Jewish lobbyists didn't exist, "the US government would have to invent them." Since large government expenditures that benefit big corporations are not popular with the American public, the pro-Israel lobby is a convenient excuse.
This vicious cycle will end only when the US government re-directs its Middle East policy toward supporting demilitarization, democratization, and a comprehensive peace settlement that recognizes the national rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
US aid can and must be used as leverage on all parties to make such a settlement possible.
More fundamentally, the US government must implement a policy to convert more of our weapons production to industries that create civilian products for both export and domestic use, thereby minimizing job losses at home and promoting peace abroad.