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Gantz lauds normalization, but says no stability without talking to Palestinians

Defense minister also says his office will work with US to maintain Israeli military edge, in light of proposed sale of F-35 fighter jets to the Emiratis

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

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, center, speaks to an IDF officer as army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, right, watches on during a visit to the IDF Central Command in Jerusalem, on September 15, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, center, speaks to an IDF officer as army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, right, watches on during a visit to the IDF Central Command in Jerusalem, on September 15, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz lauded the normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain Tuesday, while expressing concerns over both the effects it could have on the Palestinian front and the apparently related sale of F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi.

Speaking to military correspondents on a wide variety of topics ahead of the Jewish new year, Gantz stressed that the deal — of which he was not informed until after it had been agreed to by his political partner/rival Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — was an overwhelmingly positive development for Israel and its situation in the region.

“I can only praise this,” he said.

Gantz joked that Israel should “thank Iran” for bringing it together with the UAE and Bahrain, both of whom also see Tehran as a major strategic threat. This long-standing, though until now largely secret, cooperation against Iran’s expansion in the Middle East has been widely credited with being the driving force behind this emerging normalization deal.

He noted that while normalizing ties with far-away countries was undoubtedly a good thing, it was “also important to make peace with our neighbors,” and called for renewing diplomatic efforts with the Palestinians. Gantz also added that the UAE and Bahrain were specifically countries “whom we’ve never fought and who have never fought us, not even through proxies.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in front of an F-35 fighter jet at the Israeli Air Force’s Nevatim base in southern Israel (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Nonetheless, the defense minister said the proposed sale of the advanced warplanes to the Emiratis was a “serious matter” with potentially major ramifications on Israel’s military edge in the region.

Multiple media reports have indicated Netanyahu gave either explicit or tacit approval for the sale of the stealth fighters to seal the accord with the UAE, though the premier has repeatedly denied this.

Gantz refused to comment on the matter, saying only that Netanyahu said he did not give his approval for the sale and that this could be “taken for what that’s worth.”

Gantz noted that while the Defense Ministry and Israel Defense Forces formally opposes the sale, this does not mean the US won’t go ahead with it.

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

Illustrative: A US Air Force E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) takes off at Osan US Air Base in Pyeongtaek on September 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / YONHAP / str)

“I don’t remember when the US wanted to sell a weapon and didn’t [do so],” he added, apparently referring to the sale of F-16s and advanced early warning AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia despite Israeli complaints.

Shortly before Gantz’s briefing, Trump told reporters in Washington that he “would have absolutely no problem” selling F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.

Gantz said he had not yet had time to fully review the US president’s comments on the matter, but said that his ministry would work with the Pentagon to determine if and how such a sale would harm Israel’s so-called “qualitative military edge,” which the US is legally bound to maintain, and what could be done to maintain the Jewish state’s superior capabilities.

Gantz refused to comment on the specific ways his ministry was proposing that the US could offset the damage — with some combination of restricting the UAE’s use of the F-35 in some way or selling even more powerful weaponry to Israel — but said that this will be an ongoing discussion for the coming months.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, speaks to IDF soldiers during a visit to the IDF Central Command in Jerusalem on September 15, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The defense minister had just finished meeting with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, the new Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai and Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun prior to the briefing, speaking with them about the Palestinian front.

He said he did not expect that there would be a large-scale outbreak of violence by Palestinians in response to the normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain. However, he noted that the Palestinian issue was growing increasingly untenable, with no diplomatic progress toward a political solution to the conflict, deepening economic woes for the Palestinian Authority and the added stress of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gantz said that while there was no indication of an imminent uprising, there were concerns of a “straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

The defense minister said Israel was working toward a long-term ceasefire with terror groups in the Gaza Strip, but that he was “not optimistic” about the prospects of a real lasting agreement as there did not appear to be significant movement on the issue of Hamas returning the remains of two fallen IDF soldiers and two living Israeli civilians who are currently being held in Gaza.

A fireman seeks to put out a blaze caused by an arson balloon lofted from Gaza toward Israeli border communities on August 26, 2020. (Eshkol Regional Council)

Gantz said the most recent truce with the terror groups was born out of Hamas’s fears of a coronavirus outbreak, an influx of Qatari aid money, internal tensions in the Strip and the threat of additional IDF strikes on the terror group’s facilities.

Asked about a current case being heard in the High Court of Justice regarding female soldiers serving in combat and other elite units, Gantz said he generally supports women serving in all branches of the military, provided they are physically capable of carrying out their missions.

“I think women can serve anywhere they are able carry out the activities that they need to,” he said.

In response to the petition to the court, the IDF launched an investigative committee to examine the issue and determine if women are capable of serving in these units.

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