The Obama administration is under growing bipartisan pressure from Congress to deliver US fighter jets to the Wahhabi Emirate of Qatar over the objections of Israel.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Al-Monitor that he recently met with national security adviser Susan Rice and urged her to let the proposed sale through. The high-level meeting is but the latest development in an unusual debate that has seen more and more members of the staunchly pro-Israel Congress dismiss Israeli concerns that its security could be threatened by the sales.
"I want the administration to bring forth the Qatar sales, and I've met with the White House toward that end," Corker told Al-Monitor. "I support it and hope that they're going to be forthcoming."
In play are 72 F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft whose sale has been held up for the past two years, in part due to objections from Israel that the sale could erode its so-called Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region. Key lawmakers want the sale to move forward regardless, citing US demands that the Gulf countries do more to fight the Islamic State.
"We can't have it both ways up here," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who chairs the spending panel with jurisdiction over foreign aid. "We're all talking about 'they need to do more, they need to do more.' Well, their capabilities are short of where we would like them to be. One way to get them to do more is to increase their capabilities."
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., meanwhile, has long argued that the delays violate promises made during the runup to the Iran nuclear deal. He has also pressed the administration to move forward with F-18 Hornet sales to Kuwait and expedite the process to prevent Russia and others from filling in the void.
"They have plenty of money and they can go elsewhere to buy these kinds of weapons," McCain told Al-Monitor. "And it's exaggerated by the fact that when the president met with all of these leaders, he assured them that these weapons packages would be forthcoming. And so we're already hearing from them that the president gave his word and now he's reneging on it. They're very upset."
Fellow Armed Services Member Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is also pushing for the sale. The Boeing aircraft are made in her state, and the plant may close down if the order doesn't go through.
While conversations with Qatar and Kuwait predate last year's Camp David meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the joint statement from the meeting committed the Obama administration to "take steps necessary to ensure arms transfers are fast-tracked to GCC member states contributing to regional security." The May 14 statement also called for convening a "similar high level format in 2016" in order to build on the new "strategic partnership," something congressional aides fret may not happen if the US can't deliver any military boost.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Israel is seeking to leverage the Qatar sales in particular to boost its annual $3 billion in US assistance by $1 billion or even $2 billion in the 10-year aid package that's currently being discussed by the two countries, Defense News reported last month. Administration officials argued last month that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't get a better deal if he waits for the next US president to take office.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
The Israeli argument is failing to convince key lawmakers. While Qatar has earned its share of criticism for its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country is also home to the key air base at Al Udeid that plays a central role in the campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria.
"While I certainly have a great relationship with the country of Israel … on this particular issue I absolutely do not see it as a QME issue," Corker said. "And by the way, the jets would not be delivered for three or four years and in the event that over a period of time something changes, you can always stop the delivery."
Other lawmakers, however, welcomed the extra scrutiny.
"I think Congress can do a much better job of getting the administration's back in trying to attach much more serious and meaningful conditions to these sales," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Near East panel. "The Qataris still haven't satisfied the concerns of the Israelis and many of our concerns."
"We don't have a guarantee on how the Qataris are going to use these weapons," he said minutes after voting on legislation from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to ban F-16 sales to Pakistan. "But we've seen US munitions used to slaughter hundreds if not thousands of civilians in Yemen."
Murphy dismissed concerns that nixing sales to Gulf states could feed into the perception that the United States is disengaging from the Middle East.
He said, "If there's an agreement that obligates the United States to make major long-term arms sales, then that starts to sound like a treaty that Congress should have signed off on."
Others cautioned that Congress would only back Israel so far as it negotiates a new 10-year aid package.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Tim Kaine, D-Va., told Al-Monitor he doesn't see a "need to add something to it to comfort tender feelings."
"I've read some reports suggesting that this 10-year MOU [memorandum of understanding] is an effort by Congress to sort of make good with Israel after the Iran deal. And that could not be farther from the truth," Kaine said. "Our concern for Israel, which predated the Iran deal, is going to continue post-Iran deal. But I certainly don't feel a need to say, 'Oh, we made you mad, so now we have to do more so you like us better.'"
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