Proposed sale of F-35 jets to UAE prompts fears in Israel
By RUTH EGLASH AND KAREN DEYOUNG | The Washington Post | Published: September 14, 2020
JERUSALEM — The proposed sale of advanced U.S. fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates is raising concerns among some security experts in Israel that the Middle East could be on the verge of an arms race even as those two countries are expected to sign a peace deal Tuesday at the White House.
Senior U.S. and UAE officials say the peace agreement is smoothing the way for the Trump administration to proceed with the sale of long-sought F-35 stealth fighter jets and other sophisticated weaponry to the Persian Gulf state. That prospect is increasing the likelihood that Israel and other Middle East countries will in turn seek more advanced arms.
In Israel, the proposed sale is tainting the otherwise great enthusiasm here for the agreements brokered by the White House to normalize relations with the UAE and Bahrain.
"From a purely military perspective, I think it's a dangerous development. It's not just a new weapons technology. The F-35 is an entire weapons platform," said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and analyst of U.S.-Israel relations. He said the F-35s would represent a "dramatic upgrading" of the Emirates' military capability.
Eli Cohen, Israel's intelligence minister, said in an interview that the historic peace agreements to be signed Tuesday would buttress Israel's security by strengthening the alliance against Iran, which he called the main threat to Middle East stability. At the same time, he said Israel — which already has a fleet of 20 F-35s — would object to any arms deal that erodes its military superiority in the region.
"We have a clear policy about maintaining our advantage and will protest any weaponry that might damage that advantage," he said.
U.S. and UAE officials have not disclosed details of the proposed sale, including the number of jets and how advanced a model is. But under a 12-year-old law, the United States is committed to ensuring that Israel maintains a "qualitative military edge."
Another senior figure in Israel's defense establishment warned that there was no guarantee that relations between Israel and the UAE would remain amicable.
"Things change here rapidly, and we always need to be aware of this," said the senior figure, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address security discussions. "Israel is a small country. Its military advantage allows it to maintain strategic virtual depth. Removing this edge is extremely worrying for Israel's security."
The Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, considered close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reported Sunday that the Israeli army is preparing to present the United States with a list of advanced military hardware that would ensure that Israel keeps its military edge. The newspaper said this list, being compiled by a committee set up by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, probably would include advanced munitions and expedited delivery of V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, combat planes and other weapons. The Israeli military would not confirm the accuracy of this report.
According to media reports in Israel and the United States, Netanyahu privately condoned the proposed sale of the fighter jets to the UAE as part of an overall deal that included normalizing relations between the UAE and Israel.
But Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Monday ahead of the White House ceremony, has repeatedly denied agreeing to such an arrangement. A recent statement from his office said the prime minister had made clear his opposition during a July conversation with U.S. Ambassador David Friedman to the sale of F-35s and other advanced weaponry to another Middle East country.
As with the earlier sale of F-16s to Egypt, the United States may intend to provide the UAE with an F-35 variant that would allow Israel to maintain its advantage. It is unclear whether the UAE, which already fields a powerful air force, would settle for less than the most sophisticated version of the F-35.
The senior Israeli defense figure said the sale of fighter jets to the UAE is sure to spark a regional arms race: "It will have a cascade effect, and it will be harder to prevent sales of advanced weaponry to other countries in the region."
Qatar's foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, shared concerns about arms sales to the Middle East during an interview Sunday in Washington, where he participated in security talks Monday with U.S. officials.
"We don't want to see any escalation in the region, and we've seen that the region needs to be more peaceful, more focusing on prosperity and development rather than buying military equipment," he said. "We hope that anything under consideration is just to defend our countries and not to be aggressive to other countries." Relations between Qatar and the UAE have been tense in recent years.
The F-35 is produced by a U.S.-led consortium, including seven American allies, and six other allied countries have received the aircraft or have been negotiating contracts to get them. The UAE would be the first Arab country to receive the jets.
In 2008, the United States enshrined into law its commitment to ensure that Israel maintains its "qualitative military edge" in Middle East, and that pledge has earned broad bipartisan support. Over the years, the United States has provided significant military assistance to back up this promise, with the Obama administration allocating $38 billion in a 10-year aid package.
Israeli concerns over the F-35 sale to the UAE could find sympathetic members in Congress.
"Depending on what [the Emirates] want, exactly, it could potentially cause a lot of heartburn on both sides of the aisle," said a congressional aide who deals regularly with arms transfers. "This is an increasing curiosity for us, because there's been no information coming" from the administration.
"For some, it might be OK," said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "But this is a game changer, giving the Emiratis these kind of capabilities for, really, an unknown purpose. In which conflict do they need an F-35?"
A previous sale of U.S. weapons to the Emirates was included in an $8 billion package advanced by the Trump administration last year. By declaring an "emergency," ostensibly a threat posed by Iran, the White House was able to circumvent congressional oversight of the deal. President Donald Trump also vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have blocked U.S. sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for use in Yemen.
A similar emergency declaration to advance the F-35 sale could be hard to defend. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the emergency declaration last year as a "one-time event."
But Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator for the Middle East, said it would be difficult for lawmakers to derail the F-35 deal even if they wanted to. "It's very hard for Congress to take responsibility for blocking something that appears tethered to [a peace agreement] that promotes American national interest."
At home, Netanyahu has been criticized for not informing senior members of his government about what exactly the agreements entail.
"No one knows what is in these agreements, but it is certainly not peace for peace," said Nitzan Horowitz, head of the liberal Meretz party and a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.
Horowitz, a leading advocate for peace with the Palestinians, said that there has been no discussion about the agreements inside the government or in the Knesset and that Netanyahu has not even consulted with his chief of staff, defense minister or foreign minister. "This has never happened before. Netanyahu just bypassed all of them," Horowitz said.
Beyond the F-35s, he said he was deeply concerned about the potential sale of advanced cyber systems to the UAE. "This is technology that can easily be passed on or fall into the wrong hands," he said.
DeYoung reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Steven Hendrix in Jerusalem contributed to this report.