Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has privately removed any opposition to the sale of American F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, despite repeated assurances that he is against the deal, according to a New York Times report published late Thursday.
The report, which cites unnamed sources involved in the talks, claims that along with the ultra-advanced jets and Reaper drones, the deal also includes radar-blocking EA-18G Growler jets, which could erode the effectiveness of Israel’s air defense capabilities and put the UAE at a considerable military advantage.
The centerpiece of the deal, however, are the F-35 fighter jets, which the UAE has sought to purchase for several years. The sale has seemingly been held up due to a US commitment to protect Israel’s military edge in the region, which would preclude selling weapons of the same caliber to both Israel and Arab states without an okay from Jerusalem.
A recent announcement that the UAE is normalizing ties with Israel has brought the weapons deal back to the fore, though after an Israeli report that linked the forging of ties with the lifting of Israel’s objection, Netanyahu insisted that he still objects to the sale and that he has repeatedly informed Washington of his opposition.
But officials told the New York Times that Netanyahu’s statements were “false.” They added that the premier had stopped making public statements about the deal since a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week.
The report also quoted Hussein Ibish, a researcher at Washington’s Arab Gulf States Institute, who said officials from the US, UAE and Israel all told him Netanyahu gave the weapons deal a green light.
Netanyahu told the Emiratis that “there would not be substantive and categorical opposition,” he said.
While the Emirates initially reacted angrily to Netanyahu’s comments against the deal, US officials have since made clear to them that the sale remains on the table and Netanyahu’s comments were intended to soothe a public outcry over the sale, according to the report.
Defense officials, analysts and politicians, including from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, raised a hue and cry after news of the deal first broke last month in Yedioth Ahronoth, which Netanyahu derided as “fake news.”
Among those expressing concern was Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who had been kept out of the loop on normalization efforts with the UAE, but has since spoken out strongly against the sale. His ministry would normally be given the task of vetting any proposed sales to determine Israel’s position.
US officials and some Netanyahu allies insist that the jets would not erode Israel’s edge as they would be used to defend against the common enemy of Iran, as well as the fact that the UAE and Israel are now moving to cement their alliance. But others fear that the planes could be passed to another country or be used against Israel by Abu Dhabi should the region’s complicated network of alliances and enemies shift significantly.
On a celebratory trip from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi with US and Israeli delegations this week, US presidential adviser Jared Kushner defended the fighter sales, saying that Washington’s relationship with the UAE was as strong as its relationship with Israel.
By law, any sale that could potentially harm Israel’s military edge must go through Congress, which can vet it according to that rubric. While Israel cannot actually stop a sale, open opposition to one could seriously hamper a deal moving forward, with Congress unlikely to go against Israel’s wishes publicly.
Abu Dhabi has indicated that while there is no direct link between the diplomatic initiative and the arms sales, normalization with Israel should make it easier to push the deal through.
A large Emirati delegation visited Washington last week to discuss the arms deal and ties with Israel with US officials, according to the report.
The inclusion of the Growler aircraft, which had not been previously reported, could add another layer to Israel’s worries.
The Boeing plane is one of the few attack craft in the world to have a suppression of enemy air defenses, or SEAD, system on board. The plane, considered the most advanced of its kind, can conduct electronic warfare and jam radars and other air defense systems, leading the way for stealth attack jets.
Only the US and Australia have Growlers in their air forces. Israel has never publicly admitted to having attack planes with SEAD capabilities, and selling the plane to the UAE along with F-35s would likely give Abu Dhabi an edge in any air-based conflict.
Netanyahu has touted the UAE’s decision to establish open ties with Israel, only the third Arab state to do so, as the crowning achievement of his years of diplomatic work aimed at opening up the Gulf to the Jewish state. Israelis have generally welcomed the deal, which came with an Israeli promise to suspend plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer told the New York Times in a statement that it “is not true” that Netanyahu okayed F-35 sales. He added that the Trump administration remained committed to protecting Israel’s military edge.
The embassy did not respond to an immediate request for comment and the White House declined to comment to the Times of Israel.