Gantz: We have ensured Israel's security for decades to come

Gantz, Esper meet for 3rd time in a month, this time in Tel Aviv, on arms sales

US defense secretary speaks with top brass on maintaining Israel’s military supremacy despite proposed sale of F-35 jets to UAE

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and senior Israeli defense officials meet with  US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left and his staff at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 29, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and senior Israeli defense officials meet with US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left and his staff at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 29, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz lauded an agreement signed with the United States last week, saying it ensured Israel has the capabilities necessary to confront the threats it faces, during a visit to Tel Aviv by US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Thursday.

“The joint declaration we signed last week means that Israel will have the tools it needs to contend with aggressive and destabilizing forces, making it an even more effective ally to the US and creating the conditions for peace to prosper,” Gantz said following a meeting with Esper.

Gantz was referring to a document the two men signed in Washington last Thursday that reaffirmed American commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, the technical term for military superiority in the Middle East, in light of a proposed sale of American F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.

“In my meetings with senior officials of the American administration, including Secretary of Defense Esper, we have ensured the security of Israel for decades to come,” Gantz said in a statement.

Esper was in Israel for a short trip on his way back from India. It was his third in-person meeting with Gantz in just over a month. Last week and in late September, Gantz traveled to Washington for high-level meetings with Esper and other American defense officials on ways to offset the damage to Israel’s military edge by the proposed sale of the state-of-the-art, fifth-generation aircraft to the UAE.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz welcomes US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to Israel in Ben Gurion International Airport on October 29, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

During his stop in Israel, Esper was shown an Iron Dome missile defense battery that had recently been produced for the US military by the Rafael defense contractor. A US-born Israeli Air Force officer, Lt. Tova Winick, gave the US defense secretary a tour of the system.

Esper and Gantz then held a meeting in Tel Aviv with Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, center, are shown an Iron Dome missile defense battery at Ben Gurion International Airport by Israeli Air Force Lt. Tova Winick on October 29, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“They discussed the imperative to maintain regional security and stability and to confront Iran,” Gantz’s office said.

A source familiar with the meeting, who requested anonymity, told AFP that Gantz and Esper built on the discussions held in Washington last week on “making progress toward upgrading Israel’s qualitative military edge” following “developments in the region.”

Though the US has agreed generally to maintain Israeli military supremacy in the region, no deals have yet been signed for specific weapon systems or defense programs. These will likely focus on the sale of additional fighter jets, helicopters and air defense systems to Israel, a senior defense official familiar with the negotiations told reporters last week.

The proposed sale of the F-35 to Abu Dhabi has become a hot-button issue in Israel in light of allegations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had told the United States that Jerusalem would not oppose such a move as part of a normalization agreement with the UAE brokered by the White House. Netanyahu has repeatedly denied that the F-35 sale was part of the deal with the Emiratis.

This photo from September 2, 2015, shows an F-35 jet arriving at its new operational base at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Last Friday, Netanyahu and Gantz released a joint statement saying that Israel would not object to the sale in light of the US assurances to secure Israel’s military edge in the region.

Immediately after the statement was released, Gantz publicly accused the prime minister of holding negotiations regarding the sale of advanced weapons by the US to countries in the region behind the back of the Defense Ministry.

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, which was not involved.”

After Netanyahu denied Gantz’s claims, the defense minister doubled down, adding that by keeping him and his ministry in the dark, the prime minister had made negotiations with the Americans more difficult.

“After the agreement with the Emirates was signed, I ordered the defense establishment to manage the security discussions that would ensure Israel’s qualitative edge, including my own personal involvement with the American administration. If the defense establishment had the information [about the negotiations], it would have made it possible to have proper and responsible management of the process,” Gantz 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. The proposed sale was expected to be announced shortly to the US Congress, which must affirm that it would not harm Israel’s military edge, something it would be less likely to do if Israel objected.

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