Noting ‘questions’ over F-35 sale, Pelosi vows to ensure Israeli military edge

House speaker says Congress ‘will be watching and monitoring’; also says details needed on Israel’s suspension of West Bank annexation

US Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 10, 2020 (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
US Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 10, 2020 (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed on Tuesday to ensure Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the Middle East under any US arms sale to the United Arab Emirates.

In a statement as Israel signed accords normalizing relations with the UAE and Bahrain at the White House, Pelosi noted concerns around Washington’s plans to potentially sell F-35 stealth fighters and other advanced weaponry to Abu Dhabi following the deal.

“Today is an important day, as America welcomes the signing of agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain,” Pelosi said.

But “questions remain — specifically, regarding the commitment that the UAE has received from the Trump administration to purchase American-made F-35 aircraft.”

She said Congress, “on a bipartisan basis, will be watching and monitoring to ensure that Israel can maintain its qualitative military edge in the region.”

US President Donald Trump said Tuesday he has “absolutely no problem” with selling advanced F-35 fighters to the UAE.

Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The US has traditionally been committed to protecting Israel’s military edge in the region.

Under US law, Congress is tasked with vetting sales of arms to Middle Eastern countries against the rubric of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, a determination usually made via consultations with Israeli defense officials.

While Congress cannot block the arms sales, it can throw up considerable hurdles.

Media reports have indicated Israel gave either explicit or tacit approval for the sale of the stealth fighters to seal the accord with the UAE, though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly denied this, and many top Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have expressed concern at the prospect of the sale.

Gantz said Tuesday that while the Defense Ministry and Israel Defense Forces formally opposes the sale, this does not mean the US won’t go ahead with it.

“It is an American prerogative — not an Israeli prerogative — to decide whom to sell [the F-35 to],” Gantz said.

He said that his ministry would work with the Pentagon to determine if and how such a sale would harm Israel’s so-called “qualitative military edge,” which the US is legally bound to maintain, and what could be done to maintain the Jewish state’s superior capabilities.

Gantz refused to comment on the specific ways his ministry was proposing that the US could offset the damage — with some combination of restricting the UAE’s use of the F-35 in some way or selling even more powerful weaponry to Israel — but said that this will be an ongoing discussion for the coming months.

Israel, the White House and the Gulf states have kept the text of the agreements secret, but officials say they will be published sometimes after the signing ceremony.

As part of the deal with the UAE, Israel agreed to suspend its planned annexation of West Bank land for an unspecified period. Netanyahu has insisted the plan will still move forward later on, though sources with direct knowledge of the matter have told The Times of Israel the Trump administration gave the UAE a commitment during normalization negotiations that Washington would not recognize Israeli annexation until 2024 at the earliest.

Pelosi said it was “critically important that we fully understand the agreements’ details regarding the announced freeze of efforts by Israel to annex portions of the West Bank.”

She added that the House “continues to support a real and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians which must… expressly endorse a two-state solution.”

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