Earlier this month, Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) introduced a bill with potentially far-reaching and unprecedented implications for Israel’s ability to nix US weapons sales to the Middle East.
H.R.8494, the Guaranteeing Israel’s QME Act of 2020, would mandate the president “to consult with appropriate officials of the Government of Israel for information regarding Israel’s qualitative military edge” before the proposed sale or export of weapons to other Middle Eastern countries.
Although the bill would not give Israel the official ability to veto US weapons sales decisions, it would nevertheless provide it with a formal mechanism to throw a monkey wrench into those plans and make it more difficult for a president to override Israeli concerns.
If enacted into law, this bill would broaden the already existing US statutory commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge, which was surreptitiously enacted into law in 2008 after former Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) snuck a last-minute amendment into a non-germane bill, the Naval Vessel Transfer Authority.
That bill mandated the president to certify that proposed weapons sales to the Middle East “will not adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge,” which is defined in law as Israel’s
“Ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors, while sustaining minimal damages and casualties, through the use of superior military means, possessed in sufficient quantity, including weapons, command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that in their technical characteristics are superior in capability to those of such other individual or possible coalition of states or non-state actors.”
Until this point, this determination has been made solely by the United States; Schneider’s bill would essentially make it a joint US-Israeli determination.
Engel’s last gift to Israel?
Schneider is a self-described stalwart advocate for Israel who authored a resolution passed by the House last year condemning the BDS movement.
Currently, 18 Representatives, including Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), the Middle East Subcommittee Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who seeks to replace outgoing House Foreign Affairs Chair Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), are cosponsors of the bill.
Schneider’s introduction of the bill appears to be motivated by a combination of electioneering and genuine concern among pro-Israel Democrats that President Trump’s free-wheeling weapons sales to authoritarian regimes in the region could actually endanger Israel’s qualitative military edge.
With limited legislative days left in the current congressional session, which will be dominated by the Senate’s controversial attempt to confirm a Supreme Court nominee and by negotiations to pass an already overdue 2021 budget, there is almost no chance of Congress passing the bill.
However, Congress has often rammed through pro-Israel bills before and passing it through committee for a quick floor vote could be Engel’s final legislative gift to Israel before his enforced retirement, so the possibility cannot be completely discounted.
More likely, Schneider’s bill is an act of virtue signaling designed to convince the shrinking percentage of pro-Israel Democrats that the party can outdo Trump in its commitment to Israel.
Conflict over weapon sales
However, while the bill is nominally bipartisan, only three Republicans are cosponsors, pointing to the simmering conflict between Democrats and the Trump administration on weapons sales to the Middle East.
A large part of this quarrel stems from the Trump administration’s determination to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia to prosecute its devastating war against Yemen. Although Democratic opposition to US complicity in the Saudi-led coalition began during the Obama administration, it escalated under Trump and picked up enough Republican support to result last year in an unprecedented invocation of the Wars Power Resolution to end US participation in the war against Yemen.
Congress also passed a rare joint resolution last year to block a proposed sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, Trump vetoed both acts and made use of a loophole in the Arms Export Control Act to keep the spigot of weapons flowing with minimal congressional oversight. And today’s inaugural session of the US-Saudi Strategic Dialogue between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan appears designed to reinforce these US weapons sales despite congressional objections.
Even last month’s signing of the so-called Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel on the one hand, and Bahrain and the UAE on the other, has done little to calm, and much to exacerbate, the anxieties of pro-Israel Democratic Members of Congress that the Trump administration is eroding Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Schneider led a group of Democratic Representatives calling on Trump to “carefully scrutinize any proposed sale of advanced military technology like the F-35” to the UAE. And last week, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent the Trump administration a long and detailed list of questions about the proposed sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, most of which focused on its potential to erode Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Whether the Trump administration offered the F-35’s to the UAE as a quid pro quo for signing the Abraham Accords is not known. However, in opposing this weapons deal, pro-Israel Democrats are attempting to have their cake and eat it too. While cheering on Trump’s diplomatic efforts to normalize relations between authoritarian Arab regimes and Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people, they are simultaneously trying to protect and enhance Israel’s military superiority over them.