Gantz accuses Netanyahu of hiding UAE F-35 talks from Israeli defense officials

Accusations come just after Israel says it will not object to US sale of ‘certain weapon systems’ to the Gulf nation in exchange for receiving substantial military upgrades

Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Friday accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of keeping him and other top defense officials in the dark over negotiations for the US to supply advanced F-35 stealth fighters to the UAE as part of the normalization deal signed with Israel.

Gantz’s almost unprecedented airing of internal deliberations, and the implication that Netanyahu did not consult the military ahead of agreeing to give an Arab nation such advanced weaponry, came just after he issued a joint statement with the prime minister, saying Israel would ultimately not object to the sales.

“Following the signing of the peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates, the defense minister discovered that there were ongoing negotiations to sell advanced weapons,” Gantz said in a statement.

Gantz said the talks between the US and the UAE over the jets were “known to Israeli officials who were part of the (normalization) negotiations, but were hidden from the defense establishment, who were not involved.”

At the time Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi were also kept in the dark over the talks with the UAE, which were largely handled by Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer. Netanyahu later said he did this because of fears the news would be leaked and plans to formalize relations would be disrupted by regional foes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz lead a weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Gantz’s accusations also appear to contradict Netanyahu who had previously vehemently denied a media report that Israel had given a green light for Washington to sell the advanced jets to the United Arab Emirates as part of the normalization deal with Israel.

Netanyahu’s office issued a statement following Gant’s allegations, saying that the F-35 talks were a later development.

“The new understandings were not part of the peace agreement with the UAE and discussion only began a month ago following the visit of the defense minister to Washington, after the signing of the peace deal and were concluded yesterday,” Netanyahu’s office said.

Netanyahu and Gantz had announced earlier Friday that Israel would not oppose the US sale of “certain weapon systems” to the UAE, an apparent reference to the advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets, saying that Washington had given Israel assurances that it would “significantly upgrade” Israel’s military capabilities in exchange.

The joint statement came at the same time that US President Donald Trump announced that Israel had reached a normalization deal with Sudan, the third with an Arab country in recent months.

The statement said that upon returning to Israel on Friday from meetings with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Gantz briefed Netanyahu on deals reached for the “procurement of advanced weapon systems that will significantly upgrade Israel’s military capabilities, maintain its security and its military advantage in the region as well as its qualitative military edge in the coming decades.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper hold a joint statement in the Pentagon on October 22, 2020. (Shmulik Almani/Defense Ministry)

“During the visit, Defense Minister Gantz was notified by the US administration of its plans to notify Congress of its intention to provide certain weapon systems to the UAE,” the statement said without specifically mentioning the F-35s.

“The Prime Minister and the Defense Minister both agree that since the US is upgrading Israel’s military capability and is maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, Israel will not oppose the sale of these systems to the UAE,” it said.

Minutes after the Israeli statement, Trump, asked by reporters about the sale of F-35s to the UAE, said: “That process is moving along.”

Days after the UAE normalization announcement, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported that as part of the negotiations, Netanyahu had signed off on the US sale of F-35s to the Gulf state — a move that critics warned would threaten Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge in the Region, which the US is legally bound to maintain.

Netanyahu vehemently denied the report, with his office releasing a statement on August 18 asserting that “from the get-go, the prime minister opposed the sale of F-35s and other advanced weapons to any country in the Middle East, including Arab countries that make peace with the State of Israel.”

Fighter jets from the IAF’s second F-35 squadron, the Lions of the South, fly over southern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)

Washington, for its part, confirmed Netanyahu’s account that the F-35 sale had not been part of the normalization negotiations. However, US officials acknowledged that the peace deal made the weapons deal more likely.

Israel’s reversal came a day after Gantz signed an agreement with the Pentagon to safeguard Israel’s military superiority in the region.

Esper and Gantz signed a “joint declaration confirming the United States’ strategic commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East for years to come,” Gantz’s office said.

A senior Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity after the signing, told reporters that the document signed on Thursday was a general commitment by the US to maintain Israel’s military superiority but that discussions were ongoing over which specific weapons and systems that Washington would provide Jerusalem to offset the sale of the F-35 to the UAE and other weapons to other countries in the region going forward.

Asked specifically about the possibility of Israel acquiring the V-22 Osprey, a tiltrotor aircraft that effectively can act as both a helicopter and an airplane, the senior defense official confirmed that the matter was indeed being considered after it was dismissed by Israel in years past due to its high cost and narrow range of uses compared to other aircraft.

A US V-22 Osprey takes part in a training exercise during the joint Israeli-US military Juniper Cobra air defense drill at the Tzeelim urban warfare training center in southern Israel on March 12, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

He said the signing of this declaration was a boon for Israel’s national security.

“We are in a good place,” he said. “I am very relaxed.”

At the signing ceremony, Gantz said Israel was now better situated to confront Iran in the Middle East in light of its normalized ties with the UAE and Bahrain and its hopes to formalize relations with others, notably Sudan, with whom an agreement was reached the next day.

Esper said the document he signed with the defense minister was evidence of Washington’s bond with the Jewish state.

“It was important for me once again to reaffirm the special relationship between our two countries, the commitment we have made to Israel’s security based on our shared values, our shared history, and I want to thank you for your personal efforts in the past few weeks,” Esper said.

According to a Reuters report last month, the US was hoping to ink a deal to sell the stealth fighters to the UAE by December.

While Israeli opposition could have complicated a US arms sale, Jerusalem does not have an actual veto over American arms deals. Congress, however, does and opposition to the arms deal had been growing in both parties in recent weeks. However, with Netanyahu giving his blessing to the deal, that pushback is more likely to subside.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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