Normalizing with Israel, Arab states look to gain powerful ally in Washington

Israel has lobbied on behalf of countries willing to establish ties, and others hoping for the same kind of muscle on the Hill are likely taking notice

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands as he leaves the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in a speech opposing the imminent Iran nuclear deal. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands as he leaves the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in a speech opposing the imminent Iran nuclear deal. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

NEW YORK — Less than 24 hours passed between Senate Democrats failing to block US President Donald Trump’s administration from selling F-35 fighter jets and other advanced arms to the United Arab Emirates and the announcement that Morocco had agreed to re-establish official diplomatic relations with Israel.

There is no direct linkage between Rabat’s move and the massive arms sale, which many believe would not have gone forward had Israel not given the deal its own imprimatur following Abu Dhabi’s agreement to normalize with Israel several months earlier. But the proximity of the two events still served to underscore how Jerusalem’s ability to throw its weight around Washington likely factors into the calculus as Arab countries mull establishing diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

One diplomat from an Arab country described Israel’s “reach” in Washington as a selling point that goes well beyond arms deals.

For decades, Arab regimes looking to purchase advanced arms from the US have been stymied by the US commitment to safeguard Israel’s qualitative military edge, or QME, in the region, essentially giving Israel a veto over weapons sales.

Protecting the QME played at least a partial role in holding up the UAE’s attempt to buy F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and other advanced weaponry that would match or outpace US arms sold to the Israel Defense Forces.

On the record, the US, Israel and the UAE have all insisted that the eventual $23 billion arms deal was not part of normalization talks. But Trump officials have acknowledged that the agreement put Abu Dhabi in a better position to receive such advanced weaponry. A source with direct knowledge of the talks told The Times of Israel in September that both the US and Israel knew that the arms sale was “very much part of the deal” as the F-35s were of critical importance to the UAE.

Once Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz publicly gave their blessings for the deal, opposition to the sale on Capitol Hill was effectively neutralized.

The vote on the arms deal-blocking resolution was close and fell almost entirely along party lines, but the bipartisan respect for Israel’s military superiority in the region along with the normalization agreement’s backing on both sides of the aisle helped bring the weapons purchase across the finish line.

In this December 12, 2016, file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaches to one of the first two next-generation F-35 fighter jets after it landed during an unveiling ceremony upon arrival in Nevatim Air Force Base near Beersheba, Southern Israel. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

Reaching beyond arms

Congress had already soured on the Emiratis due to their involvement in the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, which helped create what has been called the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. But even after Abu Dhabi effectively pulled out in 2019, the arms deal was seemingly unable to go through until Israel gave its okay.

According to the Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, this was a sign of US lawmakers’ “respect for Israel.” And others took notice.

“This [arms deal] emboldens other countries in the region who are looking to gain access to weapons that, until now, had been off-limits,” said the diplomat, whose government does not have formal relations with the Jewish state.

“But it’s not just about weapons. Israel’s reach in Washington can be tapped for other goals, and that certainly makes normalization more enticing, despite the domestic risks,” he added.

L-R: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House on September 15, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Israel’s perceived muscle in Washington’s halls of power was already legion in some circles before the Trump administration’s transactional approach to international relations put it on steroids. Suddenly arms, support for controversial moves, or other types of backing could be had for the price of normalization with Israel, or even just talks.

A source who served as an adviser to President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign said that Arab state’s understanding of Israeli clout in Washington “is a little exaggerated,” but that the Trump administration “did little to dispel the perception” by tying the United States’ bilateral relations with other countries to the question of Israel normalization.”

David Makovsky, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Arab states realized that the Trump administration’s approach meant that they could get top dollar for normalization, even on matters unconnected to Israel. In doing so, they were “purchasing… political risk insurance [for] a post-Trump era because peace with Israel has broad support.”

Israel wasn’t only happy to come along for the ride, but may have even been in the driver’s seat, lobbying Washington on behalf of Arab states willing to make nice.

According to an Axios report, it was a team of former Israeli officials who first came up with the proposal offering US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the disputed territory of Western Sahara in exchange for Rabat agreeing to normalize ties with the Jewish state.

The news site also reported that Israeli officials lobbied their US counterparts in favor of Washington removing Sudan from its blacklist of state terror sponsors in exchange for Khartoum agreeing to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

Saudi Arabia, which has thus far held off on normalizing with Israel, may also be looking to take advantage of the opportunity to get Israel in its corner, the Arab diplomat who spoke to The Times of Israel speculated.

US President Donald Trump speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone about a Sudan-Israel peace agreement, in the Oval Office on October 23, 2020 in Washington. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

He referenced recent reports that during Netanyahu’s covert visit to Saudi Arabia last month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pushed the Israeli premier to assist in Riyadh’s efforts to smooth over its ties with Washington, seemingly dangling normalization with the Jewish state in exchange.

However, Makovsky argued that normalization with Israel will not be “a get-out-of-jail-free card because these countries will still have to answer for their [human rights-related] issues.”

Then-US Vice President Joseph Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)

“It’s helpful, but not necessarily decisive,” he said, suggesting that Biden would move away from the Trump formula for pushing Arab states to normalize with Israel.

Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, told ToI that the next administration would still seek to advance such agreements, but criticized their apparent “quid pro quo” nature under Trump.

The president-elect has also made clear that he plans to reset Washington’s relations with Riyadh to a point where it will be held more accountable for its human rights record. This is something that normalization with Israel would likely not be enough to paper over, Makovsky said.

But that’s not to say that Israel’s influence only has value during Republican administrations.

US President Barack Obama, right, meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, left, Thursday, September 25, 2014, in New York. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Netanyahu’s government was one of the few around the world that lobbied the Obama administration in favor of recognizing Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as the rightful leader of Egypt after he took over the country in a 2013 military coup. Then-president Barack Obama ultimately got behind the autocrat and re-instated $1.3 billion dollars in military aid, at Israel’s behest.

With Obama’s former vice president about to enter office, regimes still weighing normalizing with Israel are hoping that influence remains.

“There’s no question that these countries are looking for support on the Hill at the start of new era,” Makovsky said. “But the question is whether that support will be decisive in a way that will extract them from some of the challenges they face.”

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