JERUSALEM — In a break from historic Israeli opposition to U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday his country understands Washington’s plan to supply state-of-the-art weapons to Riyadh as a counterweight to Iranian influence.
The United States, knowing that Israel is sensitive about such arms sales, is also offering a sharp increase in defense aid to Israel and has assured the Jewish state it will retain a fighting edge over other countries in the region, he added.
“We understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderate states and there is a need for a united front between the U.S. and us regarding Iran,” Olmert told a weekly Cabinet meeting.
The rare agreement reflects shared U.S. and Israeli concern over the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The proposed arms deal would include advanced weaponry and air systems that would greatly enhance the striking ability of Saudi warplanes, alarming the Israeli right. One leading hard-liner warned that Saudi Arabia, although not belligerent now, could be taken over by extremists.
Israel’s southern tip is 10 miles from Saudi Arabia across the Gulf of Aqaba.
Weapons boost for Israel
The proposed package comes with a serious sweetener for Israel: a 25 percent rise in U.S. military aid, from an annual $2.4 billion at present to $3 billion a year and guaranteed for 10 years.
Olmert said the increase in military aid to Israel would guarantee its strategic superiority, irrespective of upgrades to Arab forces in the region. Olmert said the rise was pledged by President Bush during his visit to Washington last year and finalized in White House talks in June.
“In my last meeting with him, we decided that the assistance would be $30 billion for 10 years, about $3 billion a a year. This is more than a 25 percent increase ... and it is very significant for the safety of Israel,” Olmert said.
The U.S. has long-standing commitments to Israel and to Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel. At the same time, the U.S. is seeking to strengthen other moderate Mideast allies, largely as a counterweight to Iran’s growing influence.
The United States and Israel accuse Iran of developing nuclear bombs, a charge Tehran denies. Iran, whose leader has repeatedly called for Israel to be to wiped off the map, is viewed by Israel as its main enemy. Shiite Muslim Iran also worries the Saudis and other Sunni-led Arab allies of the United States.
U.S. may limit range of Saudi arms
The Haaretz daily on Sunday cited U.S. officials saying Saudi Arabia has asked that Congress be notified in advance of the planned sale, while the Pentagon is asking the Saudis to accept restrictions on the range, size and location of the satellite-guided bombs, including a commitment not to store the weapons near Israeli territory.
Although the Israeli right voiced worries about the latest plan, it stopped short of outright calls to block it.
“I am very concerned,” Yuval Steinitz, a key hawk on parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told The Associated Press. “I can understand the need to support moderate states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but on the other hand we have to remember that governments can be toppled, as in Iran.”
Senior administration officials said Friday that Bush would seek congressional approval for additional military aid to Israel and also to Egypt, which currently gets $1.3 billion a year.
The officials said before beginning her Mideast tour on Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would announce those proposals, along with the plan to sell at least $5 billion in sophisticated weapons to Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.