Netanyahu denies reports UAE deal includes okay for sale of advanced US jets

‘Utter fake news,’ says PM, after normalization pact said to include removal of Israeli veto on multi-billion F-35 deal with Abu Dhabi, without defense establishment being notified

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)
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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday denied reports that the agreement with the United Arab Emirates to normalize ties in exchange for freezing plans to annex parts of the West Bank included a green light for the US to hand Abu Dhabi the most advanced fighter jets and UAVs.

Netanyahu tweeted that the story by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily was “utter fake news.”

“From the start, the prime minister objected to the sale of F-35 jets and other advanced weapons to any countries in the Middle East, including Arab countries that make peace with Israel,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement, saying the pact doesn’t include any agreement for the reported multi-billion deal to go ahead.

“The prime minister voiced that consistent stance time and again before the American administration, and it hasn’t changed,” the statement said.

Appearing to also deny the suggestion in the reports that defense officials weren’t notified of the clause okaying the deal, the Prime Minister’s Office added that “the consistent opposition to the sale of F-35 jets was reinforced on June 2 after the head of the National Security Council [Meir Ben-Shabbat] spoke to Air Force Commander Amikam Norkin, at the prime minister’s request.”

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaks at a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, June 10, 2020. (Foreign Ministry/courtesy)

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a press briefing that “we are not familiar with any defense-related promises as part of the deal with the UAE, and if there are they weren’t made with the consultation or knowledge of myself or the Foreign Ministry.

“The IDF’s military edge is one of the most important aspects of our security,” he added.

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.

That has prevented US President Donald Trump, who has cultivated warmer ties with Gulf nations, from signing major deals with the UAE. But that is no longer the case, Yedioth reported Tuesday, citing unnamed American and Emirati officials.

The report said that what had persuaded the UAE to sign the normalization pact was an agreement on a deal worth tens of billions of dollars, under which Abu Dhabi will get advanced F-35 jets, unmanned aircraft and other weapons.

The report cited unnamed sources estimating that the UAE crown prince and de-facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, had conditioned the entire deal on the inclusion of the weapons deal clause.

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

“I don’t know that clause,” Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen told the Kan public broadcaster. “I won’t consent to a situation in which there is a change in Israel’s qualitative security advantage in the region.”

The Haaretz daily quoted unnamed senior Israeli officials involved in the effort to improve ties with the UAE as saying Gulf nations have frequently asked Jerusalem to remove its veto to enable deals with the US.

The sources were quoted expressing concern that during the secret talks that resulted in the normalization deal, Israel could have agreed to such deals — without updating or consulting senior defense officials, who have been excluded from the negotiations.

Netanyahu admitted on Thursday that he kept his senior coalition partners in the Blue and White party — including Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Blue and Defense Minister Benny Gantz — out of the loop regarding the brewing normalization deal with the UAE, and said he did so at the request of the US.

A former director of the Mossad spy agency’s intelligence unit, Haim Tomer, told Kan on Tuesday morning that the worrying part of the story wasn’t the alleged green light for the F-35 sale, but rather the reported fact that the decision was made without the knowledge of the defense establishment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The weapons deal itself, if true, “is a non-story,” according to Tomer, since “Turkey also has F-35 jets and it poses a far greater threat.”

Former IDF Air Force commander Eitan Ben Eliyahu expressed a similar opinion in an interview with Radio 103FM, saying that “the Emirates have no border with us, so them having F-35 jets is no drama.”

Israel and the UAE announced the US-brokered accord on Thursday, saying that they were establishing full diplomatic relations in exchange for freezing plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Israel had previously planned to unilaterally move ahead with the annexation of the Jordan Valley and the settlements, on the basis of the US peace plan.

The agreement makes the UAE the third Arab country, after Egypt and Jordan, to have full, active diplomatic ties with Israel. Thursday’s joint statement said deals between Israel and the UAE were expected in the coming weeks in such areas as tourism, security and trade.

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