Gantz heads to Washington to discuss F-35 sales to UAE

Defense minister expected to focus on maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, as US eyes lucrative arms deals with Jerusalem’s new Gulf ally

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to local leaders from southern Israel, August 19, 2020. (Oded Karni/GPO)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to local leaders from southern Israel, August 19, 2020. (Oded Karni/GPO)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz headed to Washington on Monday for talks with his US counterpart on maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East following its historic normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates.

Since the agreement was announced last month, the UAE has made no secret about its desire to acquire F-35 warplanes and other advanced US-made weaponry. Israel is the only US ally in the Middle East to possess the stealth fighter jet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially said he opposed the sale of the planes to any other nation in the region, even an Arab country at peace with Israel. But since then, he has softened his line, signaling he will trust the US to honor its commitment to ensure Israel’s military edge in the region, even if the UAE obtains F-35s.

Gantz’s office said he would meet with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top Pentagon officials. It said the trip would include “meetings to discuss maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge, international policy vis-a-vis Iran and strategy for stopping its expansion and entrenchment in the Middle East, as well as discussion on defense cooperation and procurement.”

Illustrative. An F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew prepare for a mission at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, in a photo released on August 5, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury/US Air Force via AP)

Gantz, a former chief of staff of the military, has had cool relations with Netanyahu since the two rivals formed their coalition government in May. Gantz was not informed about the deal with the UAE until after it was reached.

Under US law, Congress is tasked with vetting sales of arms to Middle Eastern countries against the rubric of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, a determination usually made via consultations between the Pentagon and Israeli defense officials. While Israel cannot veto a sale, it can throw up hurdles to make the deal more difficult and drawn-out.

Gantz initially expressed concern about the UAE acquiring the fighter jets, despite a recent normalization deal between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. Last week, however, he appeared to soften his tone and said Israel’s objection would not hold much weight anyway.

“It is an American prerogative — not an Israeli prerogative — to decide whom to sell [the F-35 to],” Gantz said.

US President Donald Trump said in early September that he has “absolutely no problem” with selling advanced F-35 fighters to the UAE.

Israel has publicly opposed the US selling advanced firepower to its rivals on the grounds that it needed to preserve its military supremacy. The UAE, in particular, has sought the planes for years. Senior Emirati officials have said that they expect all barriers to their sale to disappear now that they have established open ties with Israel.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on July 9, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)

“The whole idea of a state of belligerency or war with Israel is over, so I think it should actually be easier [to purchase the fighter jet],” senior UAE official Anwar Gargash said in August. “We feel that with the signing of this treaty in the coming weeks or months…that any hurdle toward this [purchase] should no longer be there.”

Gantz will also discuss joint security cooperation for reducing Iranian expansion in the region. He will remain in the United States for 24 hours, returning to Israel shortly before dawn on Thursday, according to a Defense Ministry statement.

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