Israel will oppose any US sale of F-35 jets to Qatar, minister says

Safeguarding military edge in region is top priority for Jerusalem, Eli Cohen says following report Doha made purchase request

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

Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said Sunday that Israel would oppose any potential deal for the sale of American F-35 jets to Qatar, days after a report said  the Gulf nation had told the United States it wanted to buy the stealth fighters.

The Qatari request, reported last Wednesday by the Reuters news agency, came after reports in September that the US and the United Arab Emirates were likely to seal an arms deal for the sale of the aircraft following the Washington-brokered Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel and Bahrain and Israel.

Doha’s request is seen as another test of the US’s commitment to maintaining the Jewish state’s military edge in the region in the face of wealthy Gulf states seeking to purchase advanced military hardware.

Speaking with Army Radio, Cohen said that “our security and military superiority in the region are the most important things for us.

Then-economy minister Eli Cohen at a meeting in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2019. (Flash90)

“Our area hasn’t yet turned into Switzerland,” he added.

Under US law, Congress is tasked with vetting sales of arms to Middle Eastern countries and weighing them against America’s commitments to Israeli military superiority, with a determination usually made following consultations between the Pentagon and Israeli defense officials. While Israel cannot veto a sale, it can raise concerns that could make it more difficult to seal a deal.

The US and Qatar enjoy a close military relationship. The Gulf state hosts some 8,000 US military personnel at the Al-Udeid Air Base, the US’s largest in the region.

Despite that relationship, Qatar’s ties with the Palestinian Hamas terror group could mean any request of stealth fighters would be dead on arrival, the report assessed.

Since the announcement of the normalization accords, Abu Dhabi has been open about its desire to acquire F-35 warplanes and other advanced US-made weaponry, and senior Emirati officials have also said that ties with Israel should lift any remaining barriers to such a sale.

In this September 15, 2020 file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

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 Middle East.

An unsourced Hebrew-language media report last month said Israel hoped to convince the US to “downgrade” the weaponry provided to Abu Dhabi, as preventing a sale altogether was seen as unlikely.

The report further said that with more normalization deals on the horizon between Israel and Arab states following the Abraham Accords, Jerusalem believed the US administration could push for more American weapons deals with regional powers.

In September US President Donald Trump said he has “absolutely no problem” with selling advanced F-35 fighters to the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states.

“They’re very wealthy countries for the most part. Some are extraordinarily [wealthy] like the UAE, and they would like to buy some fighter jets and I personally would have no problem with it,” Trump said.

Judah Ari Gross and AFP contributed to this report.

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