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Likud minister: We oppose sale of ‘even one screw’ of the F-35 to UAE

Hanegbi says he thinks US will bolster Israel’s military edge if Abu Dhabi gets jets; Mossad said pushing for UAE to get advanced Israeli weapons despite Defense Ministry objection

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

Tzachi Hanegbi attends a Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Kedem, in the West Bank, on September 5, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/ Flash90)
Tzachi Hanegbi attends a Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Kedem, in the West Bank, on September 5, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/ Flash90)

Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi on Tuesday said Israel opposes the sale of “even one screw” of the F-35 fighter jet to any country in the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, amid apparent plans by the United States to sell the plane to Abu Dhabi.

“We oppose the sale of even one screw of one plane of the stealth fighters to any country in the Middle East, if we have peace with them or not. That’s our position, and it has been presented in the past and has been clarified in recent weeks,” said Hanegbi, head of the newly created Settlement Affairs Ministry and a longtime ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last week, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported that the US planned to sell the fifth generation F-35 stealth fighter jet to the UAE as part of a recently announced normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. Netanyahu quickly denied the report as fake news, though US President Donald Trump and other senior American officials later confirmed that Washington was indeed considering selling the aircraft to the UAE and that the normalization deal was a significant factor in that decision.

Further indicating that the F-35 sale was — at least to the Emiratis — tied to the normalization agreement, UAE officials on Monday night told the Walla news site that a planned photo-op including Israeli, Emirati and American officials was called off, in light of Netanyahu’s public comments against the sale.

Though Hanegbi and other Israeli officials have indicated that Jerusalem considers the UAE acquiring the F-35 — one of the most advanced operational aircraft in the world — to be a step too far, the Mossad intelligence agency has reportedly been pushing for Israel to sell its own state-of-the-art weapons to Abu Dhabi for years, despite opposition from the Defense Ministry, which fears that the military technology may wind up in the hands of Iran or other enemy nations.

An F-35 fighter plane flies over the White House on June 12, 2019, in Washington DC. (Eric Baradat/AFP)

According to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday, in an effort to improve relations with the UAE following an embarrassing bungled assassination attempt in Dubai in 2010, the Mossad — with approval from Netanyahu — has been encouraging arms sales to the Gulf country, including classified and highly precise munitions, as well as powerful technological tools like the phone-cracking Pegasus software developed by the cyber intelligence firm NSO Group.

The Defense Ministry, which is legally required to approve all arms sales to foreign countries, has raised concerns over these sales to the UAE, as Iran maintains a significant intelligence presence in the Gulf, but has ultimately permitted them in light of the Mossad’s requests, according to the report.

Hanegbi, speaking on Radio 103FM on Tuesday morning, said Israel’s opposition to the US selling the F-35 to the UAE has not changed in light of the normalization plans. He said he believed that even if the F-35 sales go forward despite formal Israeli opposition, the US would find a way to compensate Israel militarily.

“Even if there’s a chance that they won’t accept our position, they’ll find a way to strengthen our advantages, as they’ve done in the past,” he said.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on February 27, 2019. (Flash90)

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz made a similar remark on Tuesday, saying he believed the US would share with Israel technology that would limit the potential damage from the F-35’s stealth capabilities.

“I assume the Americans are developing means to overcome ‘stealthiness.’ If they share that with us, it will be good,” Steinitz said.

The United States is legally bound to maintain Israel’s military advantage in the Middle East — known formally as its Qualitative Military Edge, or QME — though this has not always prevented Washington from approving advanced arms sales to countries in the region. Israel does not have a veto on American arms sales, but rather the US makes its decision based on Pentagon assessments of Israeli military power and how such deals could affect it.

They’ve been asking [for the F-35] for six years, and maybe some assess — maybe the president assesses — that [this normalization agreement] will make it easier to sell these planes if they can say that now there’s peace between Israel and the UAE

As such, the US over the years has agreed to sell the F-35 to Turkey despite Israeli opposition, though this was later rendered moot after Ankara purchased the S-400 missile defense system from Russia despite staunch American objection, prompting Washington to cancel the F-35 contract.

“The Americans are not required to accept our position. They didn’t accept it when they decided to sell the stealth fighters to the Turks, who are not an enemy state, but whom we understand we could have some kind of a conflict with,” Hanegbi said.

Hanegbi, who previously served as minister of regional cooperation, overseeing Israel’s ties to other countries in the Middle East, reiterated that the F-35 sale was not formally part of the normalization agreement with the UAE, but acknowledged that there was a connection between the two.

“This [F-35] issue did not come up, as it is, in regards to the agreement between us and the Emirates,” Hanegbi said.

“They’ve been asking [for the F-35] for six years, and maybe some assess — maybe the president assesses — that [this normalization agreement] will make it easier to sell these planes if they can say that now there’s peace between Israel and the UAE,” he said.

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