Aiming for regional peace, could normalization deals spark arms race instead?

With Gulf states linking advanced US weapons sales, including F-35s, to peace deals with Israel, only solution to maintaining Jewish state’s edge may be to sell it more arms too

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

52 F-35 jets line up for a launch exercise at Utah's Hill Air Force Base in show of force and combat readiness amid US-Iran tensions, January 6, 2020. (US Air Force/R. Nial Bradshaw/Twitter screen capture)
52 F-35 jets line up for a launch exercise at Utah's Hill Air Force Base in show of force and combat readiness amid US-Iran tensions, January 6, 2020. (US Air Force/R. Nial Bradshaw/Twitter screen capture)

NEW YORK — The Trump administration predicted that the normalization deals signed in September between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain would have a domino effect on regional peace, with as many as nine countries lining up to sign deals with the Jewish state.

But while many analysts believe that further peace deals are likely, there is also a growing concern that the moves could spark an arms race, injecting increasingly advanced US military weapons into an already highly armed and fraught region.

Just five days after the Trump administration announced the Israel-UAE deal, news broke in Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had given his blessing for the US to sell advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE.

Netanyahu denied the report, though US officials have acknowledged that the normalization deal does put the UAE in a better position to purchase the war planes. Trump himself has said he has “no problem” selling them to Abu Dhabi.

(L-R)Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan hold up documents as they participated in the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, at the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

But it’s not just the UAE that is interested in exploiting normalization to improve its arsenal. A source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that Bahrain is also hoping to purchase advanced military technology from the US against the backdrop of last month’s signing.

That list grew last Wednesday when Reuters reported that Qatar submitted a formal request to buy F-35 fighters from the US. Qatar has not been at the top of analysts’ lists of countries expected to normalize with Israel, given its close ties with Turkey and Iran, but Doha’s regular cash shipments to Palestinians in Gaza have prevented the total collapse of the Hamas-run coastal enclave, backstopping several ceasefire deals between Israel and the terror group and consequently earning it the gratitude of the US and Israel.

In this December 12, 2016, file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaches to one of the first two next-generation F-35 fighter jets after it landed during an unveiling ceremony upon arrival in Nevatim Air Force Base near Beersheba, Southern Israel. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

Living by the ‘edge’

Although the possibility of crowded Middle East skies does not appear to worry the White House, a growing number of Congress members have voiced their concerns regarding the sale of F-35s to Israel’s neighbors, mainly because they believe it risks harming the Jewish state’s military edge in the region.

These have been mostly Democratic lawmakers, but include senior members of the party, such as outgoing House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel and all three candidates to succeed him — Gregory Meeks, Brad Sherman and Joaqin Castro.

Meeks was the most adamant of the group, telling the Democratic Majority for Israel lobbying group: “I am absolutely opposed to that sale because we don’t know what’s happening in the future… I think that it violates Israel’s strategic interest and safety.”

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last month, ranking Democrat Bob Menendez agreed, saying, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if Israel’s the only country in the Middle East that has F-35s, that selling it to someone else no longer produces that qualitative military edge in the air.”

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., questions State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, Jr., as he testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 5, 2016. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Hesitation about the sale has crept into the Republican party as well. “Any potential arms sales must continue Congressional consultations on meeting our obligation to retain Israel’s qualitative military edge and satisfying the other requirements of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA),” Senator Jim Risch said at that same hearing for the committee that he chairs.

Ensuring Israel’s military advantage is not just policy in the US, but the letter of the law as of 2008, when Congress passed House Resolution 7177 barring the US from selling weapons to a Middle East country if it would “adversely affect” Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge.”

A bipartisan resolution introduced last month in the House sought to build on existing legislation and require the president to consult with Israel before moving forward with arms deals to countries in the Middle East that might harm Israel’s QME.

Congressional hesitation also extends beyond preserving Israel’s advantage.

There is a concern in Congress regarding Russia or China gaining access to US technology once it is in Emirati hands and about the Emirati ability to stop the weapons from falling into the wrong hands, with some noting unauthorized UAE weapons transfers to militia groups in Yemen accused of carrying out war crimes in the ongoing civil war there.

Weapons for weapons

The situation creates a conundrum for the US: How to reward countries that normalize with Israel, especially those united by the common threat from Iran, while at the same time ensuring Israel is not harmed?

As a senior Democratic Congressional staffer told The Times of Israel, “a lot of members of Congress want to be able to feel comfortable selling advanced weapons to countries that have shared priorities with Israel in the Middle East, especially to ones that have made normalization a priority.”

However, the aide said that such arms deals should not be allowed to level the playing field in the Middle East. “A former ambassador once said to me that ‘the militaries of the Arab world were designed to lose to Israel’ and that is the standard that we’ll use to judge this,” the staffer said.

An Emirati soldier rappels out of a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk during an exercise at an Emirati military base home to a Military Operations in Urban Terrain facility in al-Hamra, United Arab Emirates on March 23, 2020. (AP/Jon Gambrell)

A solution to mitigate both Congressional and Israeli concerns appears to be brewing regardless, and it will reportedly see Jerusalem compensated with a hefty weapons package of its own.

Hours before signing the Abraham Accords with the US, UAE and Bahrain on September 15, Netanyahu asked Trump in the Oval Office to back an $8 billion dollar arms deal for Israel that will include additional F-35s, 12 Boeing V-22s and the expedited delivery of two Boeing KC-46 refueling tankers, which will dramatically extend Israel’s range of attack, the Breaking Defense news site reported.

The Democratic Congressional staffer who spoke with the Times of Israel acknowledged that concerns the sale of F-35s to the UAE may jeopardize the QME “can be mitigated,” and said “We’re not opposed to compensating with better technology for Israel.”

Channel 12 reported last month that Israeli officials were seeking to convince their American counterparts to sell a “downgraded version” of the fighter jets to the UAE.

But a Republican Congressional aide told the Times of Israel that regardless, an effort would be made on the Hill to “expand the Israeli arsenal once the F-35 sale goes through.”

US President Donald Trump, with Melania Trump, hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sara Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020 (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Bipartisan support

Given that opposition to the F-35 sale has been overwhelmingly Democratic, one might conclude that it has been largely politically motivated.

But Foundation for Middle East Peace President Lara Friedman dismissed the assumption. “Supporting Israel’s QME is something that members of Congress — even those critical of Israeli policy — take very seriously,” she said.

Lara Friedman, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. (Courtesy)

“The idea that Israel lives in a tough neighborhood and needs these kinds of weapons that others don’t have has been beaten into the psyche of those on the Hill,” the head of the dovish DC-based organization said. “So when all of the sudden Congress members are being told by the White House that they need not worry, it’s rattling.”

Friedman speculated that had a normalization deal not prefaced the expected F-35 sale, opposition to the arms deal would have been even more widespread.

However, she said she expected that   Congress would ultimately allow the jet sale to proceed, given widespread support for the normalization deal, which Abu Dhabi appears to tie to its purchase of F-35s.

Channel 13 reported Friday that a UAE invitation for Netanyahu to make his first official visit to the country is dependent on the Israeli premier giving his blessing to the F-35 sale.

But Friedman cautioned that allowing Israel to purchase additional advanced weaponry will likely lead to discomfort in certain sections of Congress, which under the AECA can block the White House from proceeding with major arms deals.

US Air Force crew members beside an F-35 Lightning II at the Paris Air Show June 18, 2019. (AP/Michel Euler)

The Trump administration could well invoke an emergency provision to bypass the legislative branch regardless, as it did to rush through billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia last year.

“If the idea is that there is no normalization unless the US allows them to purchase these weapons and that as a result [Washington] must give Israel more to compensate, this might be good for the US military-industrial complex, but it can lead to a regional arms race in which other countries are also demanding more,” she said.

The Democratic staffer added, “If the price of normalization is more and more weapons in the Middle East, then I think we need to reevaluate what our priorities are.”

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