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Netanyahu, Gantz trade accusations about alleged secret F-35 talks

After Israel agrees to not oppose US supply of the stealth fighter jet to UAE, defense minister accuses PM of hiding weapons deals from defense officials; Netanyahu denies it

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night denied an allegation by Defense Minister Benny Gantz that he had hidden negotiations concerning the sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets by the United States to the United Arab Emirates from Israeli defense officials.

Gantz then doubled down on his claim, insisting these discussions had been kept secret from his ministry and the military, preventing “proper and responsible management of the process.”

The highly irregular public argument over a top foreign policy issue came immediately after Gantz signed an agreement in Washington with the US on Thursday guaranteeing an American commitment to Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, its military superiority in the Middle East.

After securing his assurance from the US, Gantz and Netanyahu released a joint statement saying that in light of this agreement and promises to supply Israel with yet more powerful weapons, Jerusalem would not object to the supply of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. The proposed sale was expected to be announced to the US Congress shortly, which must affirm that it would not harm Israel’s QME, something it would be less likely to do if Israel objected.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses Israel’s new accord with Sudan, with Israeli, Sudanese and American flags behind him, October 24, 2020 (video screenshot)

Minutes after issuing the pledge not to object to the sale, Gantz accused the prime minister of keeping him and other top defense officials in the dark about the initial negotiations regarding the sale of the F-35 stealth fighters as part of the UAE’s normalization deal signed with Israel in September.

“Following the signing of the peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates, the defense minister discovered that there were — in parallel — negotiations to sell advanced weapons,” Gantz said in a statement, referring to the state-of-the-art F-35 jet.

Gantz said the talks between the US and the UAE over the jets were “known to Israeli officials who were part of the (normalization) negotiations, but were hidden from the defense establishment, who were not involved.”

The defense minister’s comments appeared to confirm claims made shortly after the normalization deal was struck with the UAE, that as part of the agreement, the US would sell the F-35 and other advanced weaponry to the Emirates with Israel’s blessing. By law the US is required to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region and until now this has been cited as one of the main reasons why Washington refused requests for the aircraft from Abu Dhabi.

On Saturday night, in a primetime television address announcing that Israel would also be normalizing ties with Sudan, Netanyahu denied Gantz’s allegations, saying — as he has from the start — that there was no secret addendum to the UAE deal in which he agreed to the US selling the UAE F-35 fighter jets.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper sign a joint statement in the Pentagon on October 22, 2020. (Shmulik Almani/Defense Ministry)

He called claims of talks held behind Gantz’s back “baseless.”

Netanyahu noted that Israel did not agree to pull its objections from the arms sales until Gantz returned from meetings in Washington on Friday, which appeared to serve as proof that the defense minister had indeed been party to the discussions.

After the premier’s remarks, Gantz fired back, repeating that Netanyahu had kept the Defense Ministry and relevant officials uninformed about the matter and saying this made his efforts in Washington more difficult.

“As defense minister, I say definitely that the defense establishment did not know and was not informed by the prime minister of negotiations regarding the supply of advanced weapon systems to the United Arab Emirates,” he said in a statement.

Two new F-35 fighter jets land at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel from the United States on July 14, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

“After the agreement with the Emirates was signed, I ordered the defense establishment to manage the security discussions that would ensure Israel’s qualitative edge, including my own personal involvement with the American administration. If the defense establishment had the information [about the negotiations], it would have made it possible to have proper and responsible management of the process,” Gantz said.

At the time Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi were also kept in the dark over the talks with the UAE, which were largely handled by Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer. Netanyahu later said he did this because of fears the news would be leaked and plans to formalize relations would be disrupted by regional foes.

Though the defense minister railed against Netanyahu keeping him and his office out of the loop on the F-35 sale, Gantz did not appear to be overly concerned about the direct implications that the airplanes would have on Israel’s national security overall.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

After signing the joint declaration confirming the US would maintain Israel’s QME, Gantz said that “the security of Israel has made a major leap forward.”

A senior Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity after the signing, told reporters on Thursday night that the document signed on Thursday was a general commitment by the US to maintain Israel’s military superiority but that discussions were ongoing over which specific weapons and systems that Washington would provide Jerusalem to offset the sale of the F-35 to the UAE and other weapons to other countries in the region going forward.

He said the signing of this declaration was a boon for Israel’s national security.

“We are in a good place,” the official said. “I am very relaxed.”

Amos Gilead, a former top defense official, criticized the decision on Saturday night.

US Air Force F-35A Lightning II’s at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates on Nov. 16, 2019 (Joshua Williams/US Department of Defense)

“Who can predict coups in the Middle East?” he asked at an anti-corruption rally in Tel Aviv, according to Ynet. “The prime minister has again made a decision, which he denies. I think it’s wrong to allow the UAE to be equipped with F-35s. Abu Dhabi is not a danger, but tomorrow others will get the plans and they’ll be turned on us. We can’t have that.

“We need a state commission of inquiry, so the same mistakes won’t be repeated,” he said, referring to the submarine bribery scandal, which allegedly included a secret Israeli okay for nuclear submarine sales to Egypt.

Times of Israel staff and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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