Envoy: Israel ‘comfortable’ with US arms deal to UAE, keeps military edge

Envoy to US confident arms deal won’t harm Israel’s regional military edge, says he is more concerned about Biden’s plan to reenter Iran deal

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Left: An F-35 fighter jet arrives at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington, Vermont, September 19, 2019. Right, Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, walks through the Capitol in Washington on September 11, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite, Wilson Ring/ AP/ File)
Left: An F-35 fighter jet arrives at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington, Vermont, September 19, 2019. Right, Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, walks through the Capitol in Washington on September 11, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite, Wilson Ring/ AP/ File)

NEW YORK — Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said Monday that Israel is “very comfortable” with Washington’s proposed $23 billion arms deal to the United Arab Emirates and stressed that he is far more concerned about President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to reenter the Iran nuclear deal.

“We believe that the UAE is an ally in confronting Iran, and we do not believe that this arms package will violate the US commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge [QME],” Dermer said in a joint interview on MSNBC with his Emirati counterpart, Youssef al-Otaiba.

The Israeli envoy explained that security officials from both the US and Israel met before the arms deal was finalized in order to ensure that the federally protected QME would be maintained. Jerusalem is believed to have received an American commitment to a substantial military package to compensate for the US sale of 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets, 18 advanced armed Reaper drone systems, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions to the UAE.

Dermer said both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz had signed off on the Emirati arms deal. “I can tell you, that’s not something that happens often in our politics, but on this deal they did issue that joint statement,” he said.

(From L-R) UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba and his Israeli counterpart, Ron Dermer, are interviewed on MSNBC on December 7, 2020. (Screen capture/MSNBC)

Indeed, minutes after securing their assurance of a compensation package from the US, a joint statement was released from Netanyahu’s office on behalf of both the premier and the defense minister saying that Jerusalem would not object to the supply of advanced weapons to the UAE.

But almost immediately afterward, Gantz issued his own statement accusing Netanyahu of keeping him and other top defense officials in the dark about the initial negotiations regarding the F-35 sale as part of the UAE’s normalization deal with Israel, signed in September.

During the interview, Dermer pivoted to Israeli concerns regarding Biden’s stated intention to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran were to go back to strict compliance with the agreement.

“What keeps me up at night is actually not the proposed F-35 sale to the Emirates. What keeps me up at night is the idea that somebody would return to the nuclear deal with Iran,” Dermer said.

He argued that both Israel and Arab states in the Middle East do not support the US reentering the multilateral agreement, which provided sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.

52 F-35 jets line up for a launch exercise at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base in show of force and combat readiness amid US-Iran tensions, January 6, 2020. (US Air Force/R. Nial Bradshaw/Twitter screen capture)

Dermer reiterated his call for the Biden administration to talk with its allies in the region before moving forward with Iran.

Al-Otaiba was asked to explain the timing for the Emirati agreement to normalize relations with Israel in September.

Pointing to an Arab Youth Survey that found 89 percent of Emiratis between the ages of 18 and 24 support the normalization deal, al-Otaiba said, “There’s a recognition that the region is moving in a different direction, with different mindsets, and I think we took advantage of that.”

Senate seeks to block Emirati arms

The Trump administration officially notified Congress of the planned arms deal to the UAE last month. In the weeks that followed, Democrats, along with one Republican, have put forward a series of resolutions aimed at blocking the deal, arguing that the Emiratis should not be entrusted with such sophisticated weaponry.

Those four resolutions, submitted by Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), are slated to come to a vote on the Senate floor on Tuesday, a Congressional aide told The Times of Israel.

The proposals point to the UAE’s participation in a bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been described as a humanitarian disaster, as well as alleged Emirati violations of the international arms embargo in Libya. They also warn of the possibility that the technology supplied by the US could land in the hands of competitors Russia and China.

The liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street announced Monday that it supported the Murphy-Menendez-Paul resolutions, arguing that “proposed sale of a massive quantity of advanced, highly destructive weapons systems to the UAE would only fuel a region-wide arms race and exacerbate ongoing conflicts that are having devastating consequences for civilians’ human rights and are imperiling US interests.”

“While the Israeli government has officially stated it does not object to the proposed sale, many Israeli security leaders have warned that the transfer of this type and volume of advanced weapons technology to the UAE could materially erode Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge — a cornerstone of Israel’s security that J Street steadfastly supports,” the dovish group said in a statement.

US Senator Christopher Murphy attends a talk at the third day of the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MSC) at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, southern Germany, on February 19, 2017. (AFP/ Christof STACHE)

Last week, al-Otaiba issued a rebuttal of congressional concerns over the deal while warning that if Washington refuses to supply his country with the weapons it needs to secure the region, it will be forced to turn elsewhere.

The Senate resolutions must come to a vote by December 11 or face expiration.

A Republican congressional aide told The Times of Israel last week that it was likely the resolutions would be voted on, but even if they pass, they would not receive the two-thirds majority needed in both houses to override a presidential veto.

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.

At the same time, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, told The Times of Israel days before the election that the Democratic nominee would have to “take a hard look” at the F-35 sale, due to concerns that it might threaten Israel’s military edge.

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