Opposition lawmakers blast Netanyahu over planned F-35 sale to UAE

Members of Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee question Israel giving its blessing for US to sell stealth fighter jets to Abu Dhabi, ask why Defense Ministry was kept in dark

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

The Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meets to discuss a proposed arms sale by the United States to the United Arab Emirates on November 9, 2020. (Danny Shem-Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)
The Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meets to discuss a proposed arms sale by the United States to the United Arab Emirates on November 9, 2020. (Danny Shem-Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)

The Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee met Monday to discuss the proposed sale of the F-35 fighter jet by the United States to the United Arab Emirates, prompting denunciations by members of opposition parties against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for allegedly approving the deal as a condition of normalization with Abu Dhabi.

Though representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office, Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry addressed the committee, they offered little information beyond that contained in the official statements already released by their ministers’ offices.

The discussion was held at the request of committee member Nitzan Horowitz, the Meretz party leader.

The proposed sale of the fifth-generation stealth fighter jets to the UAE, which was first revealed by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper shortly after the normalization agreement was announced in August, came as a shock in Israel, particularly to the country’s security establishment, which had been excluded from the negotiations with Abu Dhabi by Netanyahu.

Until then, the US had rejected requests from countries in the Middle East to purchase the F-35 primarily out of concerns that it would damage Israel’s qualitative military edge, or QME, which the United States is legally required to ensure remains intact despite any American arms sales in the region.

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)

The prime minister has repeatedly denied that Israeli approval for the sale of the F-35, as well as advanced unmanned aerial vehicles and other weapons, was part of the UAE deal or that there were secret negotiations to that effect. This has been publicly questioned by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and outright disputed by opposition party members, including during the committee meeting.

Screen capture from video of Meretz Party leader MK Nitzan Horowitz speaking during a faction meeting at the Knesset, June 29, 2020. (Twitter)

Horowitz, for instance, made the allegation during a presentation by Reuven Azar, foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu.

The Meretz chief noted that one of the prime minister’s rebuttals to the claim that he had approved the F-35 sale was a letter sent to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this summer restating Israeli opposition to such an arms deal, which he said appeared to indicate that Netanyahu at least knew the matter was being considered, whereupon he should have informed Gantz’s ministry.

Why else would the prime minister instruct his national security adviser to speak with the head of the Israeli Air Force about the military’s position on the matter and formally reiterate Israel’s stance to the United States, he asked.

“Netanyahu and his people knew and they also knew, before it was signed, that the plane deal was a central part of the [normalization agreement]. They just lied in order to bypass the defense establishment and prevent possible opposition,” Horowitz said.

Azar denied that this was the case, saying Israel was only informed of the F-35 sale after the fact. He said the letter to Pompeo was sent just in case the US was considering selling the plane to the Emiratis.

Senior adviser to the prime minister and deputy head of the national security council Reuven Azar. (Screengrab: YouTube)

“When the NSC chief spoke to the commander of the air force this was to ensure that our position was up to date, from a thought that maybe the Americans would ask us about the matter,” Azar told the committee.

Horowitz rejected this claim as a farce, without presenting evidence.

Representatives from the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry said they were not informed of any side deals relating to arms sales.

“If there were any security understandings ahead of the signing of the agreement, we did not know of it and were not told,” said Dor Shapira of the Foreign Ministry.

The Defense Ministry representative, Igal Ostonovsky, who was part of the discussions with the United States regarding how Washington would compensate Israel militarily to ensure that the QME remained intact, said he too was unaware of when Israel was informed of the deal, but that this was not pertinent to his work.

“The question of if there were prior understandings or agreements did not interest me,” he said.

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)

In light of the proposed weapons sales to the UAE, Gantz traveled to Washington twice and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper came to Israel once in the span of just over a month in order to lay out the general framework for a way in which the US would ensure Israel’s military advantage.

According to Ostonovsky, this included the sale of additional weapons systems and improvements to existing ones.

No members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party or government ministers spoke at the Knesset committee meeting.

Blue and White MK Moshe Ya’alon speaks at a faction meeting ahead of the swearing-in of the 21st Knesset on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Opposition politicians blasted the deal as dangerous to Israel’s national security interests and accused the prime minister of advancing his own personal goals at the expense of the state and proper functioning of the government.

“This discussion indicates a rotten government culture — and not for the first time — [that operates] against the national interests,” said former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, a one-time ally of Netanyahu.

Ya’alon noted that while the premier had touted the normalization agreement with the UAE as being “peace for peace,” only in the American and Arabic press was it revealed that the true cost of the deal was a freeze on plans to annex portions of the West Bank and Israeli approval of the F-35 sale.

“Maybe the price is worth it… but I don’t know enough,” he said.

Meretz MK Yair Golan, former IDF deputy chief of staff, decried the decision-making process about the F-35 as woefully insufficient, considering the aircraft’s advanced capabilities.

“About far simpler weapons systems that we agreed [the US] could sell to Saudi Arabia we spoke for months within the defense establishment,” Golan said.

The retired general also said that while much of the discussions are focused on the F-35, the US’s plan to sell the Reaper drone is no less concerning.

“The Reaper is maybe the best in the world. About this alone we need to have deep discussions,” he said.

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