IAF chief expresses lingering concerns, hopes over US sale of F-35 to Emirates

Amikam Norkin maintains military’s overall view that additional advanced aircraft in the Middle East is ‘less good,’ but says joint exercises with Gulf states are in the offing

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

A new F-35 fighter jet at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, on July 14, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
A new F-35 fighter jet at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, on July 14, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin on Wednesday expressed the military’s lingering ambivalence toward the planned sale of F-35 fighter jets by the United States to the United Arab Emirates following its normalization agreement with Israel.

“It’s less good that there are advanced aircraft in the region. It is not a direct threat to us, but it is a trend that will have an influence on us,” Norkin said, speaking at an event at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.

Shortly after the announcement of Abu Dhabi’s decision to normalize ties with Israel, reports emerged that in light of the agreement, the United States, which brokered the deal, had agreed to sell the fifth-generation fighter jet to the UAE, after years of denying requests to do so, largely over concerns that such a sale would negatively affect Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which Washington is legally bound to maintain.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied signing off on the sale as a term of the normalization agreement, though this has been contested by some Emirati officials and senior Israeli defense officials have expressed uncertainty over the matter. The United States has said that while the F-35 deal was not officially part of the so-called Abraham Accords, Israel normalizing ties with the UAE did pave the way to the weapons sale.

Though the air force chief expressed his concerns over the F-35 purchase and the damage it caused to Israel’s military advantage, he lauded the normalization agreements as a boon to regional security.

Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin, left, looks at an F-16 fighter jet that will take part in an exercise in Germany in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

“There is a tremendous opportunity, a strategic opportunity in these agreements with the Gulf states. We’re not far from seeing joint exercises with Gulf air forces. A year ago we flew in an exercise in Greece with the Emirati air force. This will strengthen regional stability,” he said.

Norkin praised a joint declaration signed between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to ensure Israel’s military advantage in the region. The details of the agreement have not been made public, though Gantz has said that it ensures Israeli military superiority for decades.

“We want to see our pilots maintaining their status and our security industries preserving our relative advantage. This is a condition for our existence for centuries to come,” Norkin said.

The F-35 stealth fighter jet is considered one of the most advanced military planes in the world. With an exceedingly powerful computer on board, it serves not only as an attack aircraft, but also a collector, analyzer and distributor of intelligence.

Earlier this month, the US Senate voted to reject a pair of resolutions aimed at blocking the Trump administration’s planned arms sale to the UAE.

Splitting mostly on party lines, opponents failed to convince a majority of 50 senators in two procedural votes that US President Donald Trump was acting hastily before President-elect Joe Biden takes over next month to bolster the UAE, which has been heavily criticized for its role in the Saudi Arabia-lead offensive in Yemen.

Because the transfer of such weapons takes years to come about, an incoming Biden administration could also block the deal, but there’s little precedent for a president to scrap such agreements made by a predecessor.

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