TEL AVIV — As helicopters fly over Jerusalem in preparation for hosting U.S. President Donald Trump Monday, many here are wary about his mammoth $110 billion deal with Saudi Arabia inked Saturday.
The arms deal that can eventually balloon up to $350 billion in the next decade has serious security implications for Israel, both positive and negative, experts here say.
"This is a matter that really should trouble us," Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Sunday at the weekly cabinet meeting. "We have also to make sure that those hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia will not, by any means, erode Israel's qualitative edge, because Saudi Arabia is still a hostile country without any diplomatic relations, and nobody knows what the future will be."
Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz also expressed caution, saying, "A regional coalition should be built under American leadership to block and push back Iran. At the same time, Israel’s qualitative military edge should be maintained."
Historically, Israeli reaction to major frontline weapons deals to countries in the region have ranged from pointed, yet private concern to public denunciations.
"In the past, whenever such deals were announced, Israel has strongly objected to them," Eytan Gilboa, senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University said, pointing to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's deal of selling five Airborne Warning and Control System surveillance planes in the 1980s.
Gilboa suspects the generally muted official Israeli response stems from not wanting to antagonize Trump moments before he arrives and to not sabotage any covert security ties between the Jewish state and the Saudi Kingdom.
"This is a 10-year deal. Based on what has happened in the last few years, it is not certain who will control Saudi Arabia [in the future]," Gilboa warned. "The weapons may find themselves in the hands of hostile forces, and this is a problem," he told Defense News, stressing any revolutionary upheaval that would remove the sitting government in Riyadh could be disastrous for Israel.
However, Israeli Reserves Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror was more upbeat, seeing strengthened U.S.-Saudi ties as an opportunity to deepen behind the scenes collaboration with Riyadh and other Gulf States in a collective regional effort to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"Maybe [this deal] will lead to a different situation in the Middle East," Amidror told reporters in a conference call on Sunday. "In a way, in this new Middle East, in which we hope to cooperate with Arab states to contain the Iranians, I think it may add to self confidence of the Saudis in their part of this alliance."
He dismissed any speculation that Israel's Qualitative Military Edge (QME) will be harmed with this deal.
"It is not something new that Israel should be worried about. We know for sure that the American administration values Israel's competitive edge. This was true in the past, and I'm sure that will be part of this administration, as well," he said.
In a joint op-ed published Sunday in The Times of Israel, Emily Landau, head of the arms control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), and Shimon Stein, Israel's former ambassador to Germany and former member of Israel’s delegation to multilateral negotiations on arms control, agreed with that sentiment, saying this is a moment of opportunity not to be missed.
"This is an offer and an opportunity that Israel must seize," they said, referring to a recent Wall Street Journal report that said there is a proposal in place that would bring Israeli/Saudi relations out from behind the shadows and into the light.
"Indeed, the Gulf states are signaling their willingness to begin normalizing relations with Israel, and what they are asking in return is much less than required by the Arab Peace Initiative: some good faith measures from Israel like ending settlement construction in certain areas of the West Bank, and freer trade into Gaza," they said.
As for getting the long-derailed peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians back on track, Gilboa thinks that Trump's campaign promise of bringing the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem may be a round-about way of getting the Palestinians to the table.
"It's possible that the whole Jerusalem transfer issue created a bargain card because he could — I'm sure this came up — he probably told the Palestinians, 'If you don't negotiate with Israel, then I will move the embassy,'" he said.
But in a visit already marked by chaos — a festive dinner at the King David Hotel and a visit to the Bethlehem's Church of Nativity were hastily cancelled Sunday afternoon — it is difficult to predict what will transpire as Trump touches down here on Monday.
Noa Amouyal contributed to this report from Jerusalem.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.