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Defense minister: It’s not good for Israel if other countries get F-35

Gantz says he was not informed about details of normalization deal — including reported US sale of stealth fighter — until after the fact; PM denies such a sale is part of deal

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a press conference in his office at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, on August 18, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a press conference in his office at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, on August 18, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday warned that the proliferation of the F-35 fighter jet was “not good for Israel,” following reports that the United States would sell the advanced aircraft to the United Arab Emirates.

“It’s not good for Israel that the plane is going around in other places. We need to talk to the Emiratis, to the Americans, and make sure that our security interests are being upheld,” Gantz told reporters in a press conference.

On Tuesday morning, the Yedioth Ahronot daily reported that the White House had agreed to sell the fifth-generation aircraft to Abu Dhabi as part of an emerging normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel. The US had long refused to sell the advanced stealth fighter jet to the Emiratis in large part because it would threaten Israel’s so-called “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East.

Responding to the report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied as “utter fake news” that the sale of the F-35 was part of the normalization agreement and noted that he and Israel’s ambassador to the US had opposed sales of the aircraft to the UAE in the past. Netanyahu did not, however, explicitly deny that the F-35 would be sold to the Emiratis.

The fighter jet is considered one of the most advanced aircraft in the world, with stealth capabilities as well as a powerful on-board computer that connects it to other aircraft in the sky.

Israeli F-35 fighter flies during an aerial show at a graduation ceremony for soldiers who have completed the IAF Flight Course, at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, December 27, 2017. ( Flash90)

Gantz criticized the fact that he’d been kept in the dark about the normalization agreement until it was announced last Thursday. Netanyahu told the Israel Hayom newspaper that Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, both of the Blue and White party, were not informed of the deal in order to prevent them from leaking the information.

“The prime minister informed me of this after the decision was made, so that from the start I couldn’t have known about things that are happening,” Gantz said.

“I believe that it was improper that we weren’t updated. I know that I’ve never in my life leaked anything. When I want to give a briefing, I call you [journalists]. Leaks are other people’s games,” he said.

But the defense minister said he was willing to look past the apparent slight by Netanyahu and do what was needed to broker this negotiation agreement with the UAE.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

“I’m not going to get involved with who gets credit, which is less important to the State of Israel. What is more important to the State of Israel is if we can advance a peace agreement. And if that means I have to take a deep breath, I don’t mind. But I don’t want the security of the state to be damaged,” he said.

Gantz did not say that he would oppose the sale of the F-35 to the UAE, but stressed that he would ensure Israel’s security interests.

“I say to you: It is forbidden to take risks with security. We will ensure — ensure well — that our security interests will be preserved,” Gantz said.

“You can make a peace agreement while being responsible security-wise. Not only can you, you must,” he said.

Gantz said he planned to discuss the matter of the F-35 sale with the Emirati defense minister.

“So long as I’m defense minister, not one thing will move without coordination or in an irresponsible way in terms of security,” he said.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi meets at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 10, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ashkenazi, the foreign minister, said in a press briefing Tuesday that “we are not familiar with any defense-related promises as part of the deal with the UAE, and if there are they weren’t made with the consultation or knowledge of myself or the Foreign Ministry.”

“The IDF’s military edge is one of the most important aspects of our security,” he added.

Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the US Congress promised to preserve Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East by considering Jerusalem’s position before selling advanced weapons to the Jewish state’s neighbors.

The Haaretz daily quoted unnamed senior Israeli officials involved in the effort to improve ties with the UAE as saying Gulf nations have frequently asked Jerusalem to remove its veto to enable deals with the US.

The sources were quoted expressing concern that during the secret talks that resulted in the normalization deal, Israel could have agreed to such deals — without updating or consulting senior defense officials, who have been excluded from the negotiations.

Netanyahu admitted on Thursday that he kept his senior coalition partners in the Blue and White party out of the loop regarding the brewing normalization deal with the UAE, and said he did so at the request of the US.

Hamas ‘playing with fire’

An Israeli firefighter attempts to extinguish a fire caused by a incendiary balloon launched by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza, Israel on August 16, 2020. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Gantz on Tuesday also commented on the uptick in violence along the Gaza border, as terror groups in the Strip threaten renewed conflict unless its demands for a ceasefire are met by Israel.

In recent days, terrorists in the Strip have again begun launching balloon-borne explosive and incendiary devices into Israel, sparking dozens of fires and causing considerably environmental and some property damage.

“Hamas is playing with fire with us. I will ensure that this fire will be directed back at it. This needs to stop immediately,” Gantz said.

Turning to the country’s northern border, the defense minister said Israel remained ready for the possibility of an attack by the Hezbollah terror group, despite the military drawing down troops in the area.

“If anyone harms a hair on a soldier’s head, it will be very painful for the other side,” he said.

“I hope [Hezbollah] won’t challenge me. But I’m ready for the challenge,” Gantz added.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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