Although official figures have yet to be given, reports indicate that the proposed U.S. arms sale to several Gulf Arab nations will be between $5 billion and $20 billion. The countries to receive U.S. arms are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
U.S. military aid to Israel is to increase from $2.4 billion to $3 billion dollars a year, in a newly announced $30 billion ten year package. Neighbouring Arab states that have signed peace treaties and have normalized relations with Israel, namely Egypt and Jordan are to receive $13 billion over the same period.
Though there have been angry opinion articles in the Israeli press, the Israeli government says it understands the sales are to counteract Iran’s growing military might and regional influence. That is undoubtedly one of the reasons, but not the only one.
For much the same reason as above, shortly after the Islamic regime swept to power in Iran in 1979, the U.S. and the west supported Saddam Hussein after his offensive war on Iran became defensive: because they feared that an extremist Shiite Iranian government would take Iraq and threaten the vital oil reserves of the Middle East. But why is it necessary to arm the Arab states now, when the U.S. army is in Iraq, preventing Iran taking the country let alone advancing into the Middle East proper?
The U.S. announcing such a massive arms sale to the Arab states, which has been long opposed by the U.S.’ main ally in the region — Israel — suggests that a U.S. pullout from Iraq could be closer than Bush wants to admit.
Iraq is a predominantly Shiite state and Iran is not without influence in southern Iraq’s Shiite communities, powerful militias and even the U.S. imposed Shiite government. There has long been talk of Iran’s involvement on the Shiite side of Iraq’s sectarian violence, as there has been talk of Saudi and other Arab state’s involvement in it on the Sunni side. For the U.S. to add $20 billion worth of fuel to that proxy fire also suggests their troops will be out of the way when the proverbial **** hits the fan.
Now, the other story in the region at the moment — relating to the arms sale — is the new momentum behind resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, with widespread reports that Bush is determined to force both sides into agreement before he leaves office early 2009. According to most analysts the Arab Peace initiative still offers the best chance of such a resolution, not least because it supersedes the Hamas-Fatah power-struggle — both support the initiative.
The Arab Peace initiative offers Israel normalized relations with all Arab (League) states, which should be a guarantee of Israeli security, in return for their withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders (returning Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Palestinian control), and finding a just solution to the refugee issue.
Returning the land, especially even part of Jerusalem, which is an equally holy city for both Arab and Jew (hence their history of brutal wars over it), is a hard pill for the Israeli government to swallow, and harder to sell to their population, especially since Israel’s military strength and reputation for brutal retaliation and collective punishment has all but guaranteed Israeli security already.
Israel has won four wars with its surrounding Arab neighbours, two of those without U.S. help. Since the U.S. started its support of Israel they have become the strongest military power in the region by far. The proposed arms sale changes that, as part of Bush’s strategy to resolve the conflict as his legacy.
For a start the sale will make the Israeli population feel threatened for the first time in over two decades. It will make the Arab states a possible threat to Israel again, and at an ideal time. With Olmert struggling to stay in power he may feel pressured to accept the Arab initiative, return the Palestinian land and adequately compensate the refugees to guarantee the security of a suddenly threatened population.
For once Bush may have got something right. The arms sale, Olmert’s dwindling popularity and a U.S. administration determined to resolve the conflict pronto, combine to make this conflict look a lot closer to finally being resolved. All eyes will be on the proposed peace conference later this year — mine included.