The Cable

Berman to Egypt: Let My Lulavs Go

Egypt has banned the export of a key item needed for Jewish holiday observance, and Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA) is not happy about it.

"I am writing to express my deep concern over reports that Egypt has made a decision to ban the export of palm fronds, also known as lulavs, used in the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which this year begins on October 12th," Berman wrote in a letter to Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf today. "Given that Egypt is one of the world's largest supplier of lulavs, an export ban imposed so close to Sukkot may lead to shortages or extreme price spikes -- causing financial hardship for families and communities simply wishing to fulfill their religious obligations."

Egypt has banned lulav exports before, to prevent overharvesting, but those bans were announced well in advance and allowed Jews to find alternative lulav sources, Berman said. Also, in the aftermath of the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, a lulav crisis is the last thing needed in Jewish-Egyptian relations.

"In light of the recent tensions between Egypt and Israel, there is a widespread perception that the reported ban on lulav exports was imposed for purely political reasons. I sincerely hope this is not the case," wrote Berman. "I urge your government to reassess in a timely manner the decision to impose an export ban and take all necessary steps to prevent any disruption in the supply of lulavs before Sukkot."

The Egyptian embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comments on the lulav situation.

The Cable

Taiwan arms sales decision announced

The Obama administration formally notified Congress and announced details of its decision to sell Taiwan a new $5.8 billion package of arms, which includes an upgrade package to Taiwan's existing fighter jets -- but not the new F-16 jets it had requested.

"The recipient is one of the major powers in Asia and the Western Pacific and a key partner of the United States in ensuring peace and stability in that region," stated the notification on the website of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, where foreign military sales are posted. "It is in the U.S. national interest to assist the recipient in developing and maintaining a strong and ready self-defense capability, which will contribute to an acceptable military balance in the area."

The bulk of the arms package is made up of $5.3 billion worth of retrofits for Taiwan's 145 F-16 A/B jet fighters.

"The proposed retrofit improves both the capabilities and the reliability of the recipient's fleet of F-16A/B aircraft. The improved capability, survivability, and reliability of newly retrofitted F-16A/B aircraft will greatly enhance the recipient's ability to defend its borders," the notification said. "This proposed sale serves U.S. national, economic, and security interests by supporting the recipient's continuing efforts to modernize its armed forces and enhance its defensive capability. The proposed sale will help improve the security of the recipient and assist in maintaining political stability, military balance, and economic progress in the region."

The remaining $500 million in the package is for a pilot training program for Taiwanese pilots to learn how to fly F-16s at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney issued a statement criticizing the administration for not offering Taiwan the 66 new F-16 C/D fighter jets they had requested.

"President Obama's refusal to sell Taiwan new military jets is yet another example of his weak leadership in foreign policy," Romney's statement said. "President Obama has ignored Taiwan's request and caved into the unreasonable demands of China at the cost of well-paying American jobs. This decision raises serious questions about his commitment to our closest partners and to the policies that have sustained American leadership abroad."

The administration had preemptively given its defense of the decision to reporters on Monday, via a senior administration official speaking on background basis to reporters in New York.

"Assuming the decision is to upgrade F-16 A/B, they will provide essentially the same quality as new F-16 C/D aircraft at a far cheaper price. And Taiwan would stand to get 145 A/Bs versus only 66 C/Ds. And we're obviously prepared to consider further sales in the future," the official said, not wanting to confirm the details before official congressional notification.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) sponsored a bill with Sen. Robert Menendez (R-NJ) to compel the administration to sell Taiwan new planes, and he is trying to add that bill as an amendment to the Trade Adjustment Assistance bill that is on the Senate floor now.

"Taiwan must have the tools to defend itself against potential Chinese aggression, and this decision not to sell Taiwan new F-16C/Ds represents a failure by the administration to live up to its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act," said Cornyn.

The F-16 is produced by Lockheed Martin in Cornyn's home state of Texas.