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AIPAC says not opposed to US arms deal to UAE amid progressive backlash

Pro-Israel lobby cites recent normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, along with US assurances that weapons sale won’t harm Jewish state’s regional military edge

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

Two US Navy F-35C Lightning II jets fly in formation during an exercise out of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, November 16, 2018. (US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe)
Two US Navy F-35C Lightning II jets fly in formation during an exercise out of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, November 16, 2018. (US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe)

NEW YORK — The AIPAC pro-Israel lobby group said Tuesday that it will not oppose Washington’s planned $23 billion arms deal to the United Arab Emirates.

“We do not oppose the proposed arms sale to the UAE, given the peace agreement reached between Israel and the UAE as well as the agreement reached between the US and Israel to ensure Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) will not be adversely impacted by the sale,” AIPAC’s spokesman Marshall Wittmann said in a statement that was first reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

AIPAC’s opposition would have marked an additional complication to the Trump administration’s plans to rush the arms deal through before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20. The sale is already facing opposition from largely progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups over the UAE’s military conduct in Yemen and Libya.

The decision puts the more centrist AIPAC at odds with the more liberal, pro-Israel lobby J Street, which announced its opposition to the weapons sale on Monday.

Israel and the UAE signed a US-brokered normalization deal in September. Last month, the Trump administration formally notified Congress of its plan to sell 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets, 18 advanced armed Reaper drone systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions to the UAE.

The announcement came less than two months after the UAE signed a normalization agreement with Israel, which was brokered by the White House. On the record, the three countries have insisted that the arms deal was not part of negotiations that brought about the so-called Abraham Accords.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

But Trump officials have acknowledged that the agreement put Abu Dhabi in a better position to receive such advanced weaponry, and a source with direct knowledge of the talks told The Times of Israel that both the US and Israel knew that the arms deal was “very much part of the deal.”

Israel announced in October that it would not oppose the sale, an about-face from its previous opposition to the deal on the grounds that it would harm the Jewish state’s military edge in the region. That decision came after meetings held between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his US counterpart at the time, Mark Esper, at the conclusion of which the sides signed an agreement further codifying Washington’s commitment to maintain Israel’s federally-protected military edge in the region.

Gantz is also believed to have secured an American commitment to a substantial military package to compensate for the weapons that the Pentagon is preparing to sell to one of Israel’s neighbors.

In the weeks following the introduction of the arms sale, Democrats, along with one Republican, put forward a series of resolutions aimed at blocking the deal, arguing that the Emiratis should not be entrusted with such sophisticated weaponry.

Those four resolutions, submitted by Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, are slated to come to a vote on the Senate floor on Wednesday, a Congressional aide told The Times of Israel.

The proposals point to the UAE’s participation in a bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been described as a humanitarian disaster, as well as alleged Emirati violations of the international arms embargo in Libya. They also warn of the possibility that the technology supplied by the US could land in the hands of rivals Russia and China.

Last week, the UAE’s Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba issued a rebuttal of congressional concerns over the deal, warning that if Washington refuses to supply his country with the weapons it needs to secure the region, it will be forced to turn elsewhere.

The Senate resolutions must come to a vote by December 11 or face expiration.

A Republican congressional aide told The Times of Israel last week that it was likely the resolutions would be voted on, but even if they pass, they would not receive the two-thirds majority needed in both houses to override a presidential veto.

Because the transfer of such weapons takes years to come about, an incoming Biden administration could also block the deal, but there’s little precedent for a president to scrap such agreements made by a predecessor.

At the same time, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, told The Times of Israel days before the election that the Democratic nominee would have to “take a hard look” at the F-35 sale, due to concerns that it might threaten Israel’s military edge.

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