Carter Proposes Aircraft Sale to Saudis
A newly restored, American manufactured Royal Saudi Air Force AWACS jet. Photo: US Airforce

February 14, 1978

President Jimmy Carter announces a plan to sell advanced fighter jets to Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Coming three months after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel, the proposal draws swift condemnation from the American Jewish community, particularly regarding the Saudi portion of the sale. Many American Jews already distrust Carter for various statements and actions, but nothing has drawn such a negative reaction.

Under Carter’s plan, Congress must approve the sales to all three nations — 15 F-15s and 75 F-16s to Israel, 50 F-5s to Egypt, and 60 F-15s to Saudi Arabia — or none of them will receive the aircraft. The Ford administration delivered 25 used F-15s, purchased for $625 million, to Israel in late 1976. The Carter administration argues that the aircraft are all defensive weapons, although the F-16s and F-15s can strike targets more than 1,300 miles away when using supplemental external fuel tanks. Jerusalem is about 260 miles from Cairo and 860 miles from Riyadh.

National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and the White House liaison for Jewish affairs, Mark Siegel, speak to influential Jewish groups to convince them of the planes’ defensive nature. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Defense Secretary Harold Brown make the same case before Congress. After learning more about the offensive capabilities of the F-15 and F-16, Siegel resigns several months later to protest the Carter plan.

AIPAC and Israeli government representatives lobby Congress to reject the package, in the belief that Israel would be better off without the new aircraft than Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be. But the aircraft plan wins approval after Carter argues in a letter to the Senate on May 12, 1978, that the proposed sales would benefit Israel in the long term: “It is in Israel’s interest to encourage the forces of moderation in the Middle East and to promote their close relationship with the United States.”

The Saudi foreign minister tells Carter two years later that his nation is prepared to recognize Israel, and Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, presents a plan to sell the Saudis additional F-15 and AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft in 1981.