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Gantz raps Netanyahu for sidelining him on F-35 policy as UAE deal brewed

Defense minister pens letter chastising PM, NSC head for asking air force chief if policy on Arab neighbors acquiring fighter jets had changed, without notifying him

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 sent a letter on Thursday chastising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of the National Security Council for reaching out, against protocol, to the head of the air force in the lead-up to Israel’s normalization deal with the UAE to inquire into the country’s policy regarding Arab neighbors acquiring F-35 fighter jets.

Gantz, in the letter, accused Netanyahu and Meir Ben-Shabbat of “circumventing his authority” by not requesting his permission to discuss the matter with Air Force Chief Amikam Norkin on July 2, just over a month before the normalization deal was announced. He was not updated regarding the conversation — which was reported on Wednesday by the Maariv newspaper — nor was IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, according to Hebrew media.

The reported conversation between Netanyahu, Ben Shabbat and Norkin appeared to poke a hole in the premier’s insistence that he did not agree to green-lighting the UAE’s purchase of F-35s from the US as part of the normalization deal.

The fighter jet is considered one of the most advanced aircraft in the world, with stealth capabilities as well as a powerful on-board computer that connects it to other aircraft in the sky.

Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin speaks at the Israel Aviation Conference at Airport City, May 2, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

For years, the US has denied requests by Arab states to buy advanced American weapons systems, in part due to a longstanding political doctrine involving Israel.

Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the US Congress promised to preserve Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East by considering Jerusalem’s position before selling advanced weapons to the Jewish state’s neighbors. This was codified in law in 2008.

That has prevented US President Donald Trump, who has cultivated warmer ties with Gulf nations, from signing major deals with the UAE. But on Tuesday Yedioth Ahronoth reported, citing unnamed American and Emirati officials, that the UAE was persuaded to agree to the normalization pact thanks to a side-deal worth tens of billions of dollars, under which Abu Dhabi would purchase advanced F-35 jets, unmanned aircraft and other weapons from Washington.

Netanyahu denied the report, calling it “utter fake news.”

But on Wednesday, Trump confirmed that the US was reviewing the potential sale of F-35 stealth fighters to the UAE, amid reports the arms deal was an integral part of Abu Dhabi’s agreement last week to normalize ties with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Avi Dichter, left, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, right, at an FADC meeting in the Knesset, November 19, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

US officials speaking to The New York Times Wednesday denied the potential F-35 sale was a reward to Abu Dhabi for the peace agreement with Israel, but they did acknowledge that efforts to clinch such a deal had been provided new momentum by the normalization agreement.

On Thursday, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told the Atlantic Council that Abu Dhabi’s request to purchase F-35 stealth bombers from the United States was not part of a deal to normalize ties with Israel, but that the agreement should remove “any hurdles” to their acquisition.

“The UAE has already indicated that it wants the F-35 six years ago. It’s already on the table. We have legitimate requests that are there, and we ought to get them,” Gargash said.

“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],” he said. “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.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press briefing, July 27, 2020 (Gobi Gideon/GPO)

Following the Yedioth report, Gantz on Tuesday warned that the proliferation of the F-35 fighter jet was “not good for Israel.”

Gantz also criticized the fact that he’d been kept in the dark about the normalization agreement until it was announced last Thursday. Netanyahu told the Israel Hayom newspaper that Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, both of the coalition Blue and White party, were not informed of the deal in order to prevent them from leaking the information.

“The prime minister informed me of this after the decision was made, so that from the start I couldn’t have known about things that are happening,” Gantz said.

“I believe that it was improper that we weren’t updated. I know that I’ve never in my life leaked anything. When I want to give a briefing, I call you [journalists]. Leaks are other people’s games,” he said.

But the defense minister said he was willing to look past the apparent slight by Netanyahu and do what was needed to implement the agreement with the UAE.

Netanyahu and Gantz have been locked in a bitter coalition dispute that has brought the country to the brink of a new Knesset election — the fourth since last year — amid the unprecedented economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

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