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Gantz heads to US for ‘security meeting’ with Pentagon chief

Discussions likely to focus on proposed sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates as defense minister makes second trip to the US in a month

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

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, right, with Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Pentagon, Washington, September 22, 2020. (Shmulik Almani/Defense Ministry)
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, right, with Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Pentagon, Washington, September 22, 2020. (Shmulik Almani/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz will fly to the United States on Wednesday night for a “security meeting” with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, as well as discussions with other officials in the Pentagon, Gantz’s office said.

The meetings will likely focus on the proposed sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and the potential impact on Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, or QME, its military superiority in the region, which the US is legally mandated to maintain.

Gantz planned to return to Israel on Friday, his office said.

This would be the defense minister’s second trip to Washington in a month, an apparent indication of the White House’s eagerness to progress quickly with the contentious sale, which raised concerns about Israel’s ability to preserve its military advantage in the Middle East.

Though officials involved in the matter maintain that the agreement to provide the F-35 stealth fighter jet to the UAE was not directly tied to Abu Dhabi’s normalization of ties with Israel, American officials have definitively indicated that the deal with Jerusalem paved the way to the arms sale, which is expected to include not only the F-35 but also advanced drones.

During Gantz’s visit to the United States last month, Esper vowed to maintain Israel’s military edge.

“The defense relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger: We intend to keep it that way,” Esper told Gantz, according to the Pentagon.

He added that “a cornerstone of our defense relationship is preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.”

“We will continue to support the long-standing US priority to maintain Israel’s security,” he 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, but is also looking for ways to assuage Israel’s concerns that its security could be jeopardized by the sale of the advanced jets.

The sale of the state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jet could be offset by either providing the Emiratis with a less capable form of the aircraft or by selling Israel yet more powerful systems to Israel.

Gantz has previously expressed opposition to the sale of the F-35s to the UAE, though he has also noted that the choice is ultimately up to the US.

While Israeli opposition could complicate a US arms sale, Jerusalem does not have an actual veto over American arms deals.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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