The top US defense official told his Israeli counterpart that Washington was committed to maintaining Israel’s military edge in the region Tuesday, as the sides sought ways to defray Jerusalem’s worries over the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Pentagon chief Mark Esper and other senior US officials during a visit to Washington, a week after Israel normalized relations with the UAE and Bahrain at a White House ceremony. The Emirates has expressed hopes that the normalization agreement will make it easier to push through the sale of the advanced planes, which could impinge on Israel’s military edge in the region.
“The defense relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger: We intend to keep it that way,” Esper told Gantz, according to the Pentagon.
He added that “a cornerstone of our defense relationship is preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.”
“We will continue to support the long-standing US priority to maintain Israel’s security,” he said.
Gantz and Esper “discussed the importance of ensuring Israel’s military edge and the avenues to maintain it and reviewed additional regional opportunities and potential defense collaborations,” the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement.
According to a Reuters report Tuesday, the US is hoping to ink a deal to sell the stealth fighters to the UAE by December, but is also looking for ways to assuage Israel’s concerns that its security could be jeopardized by the sale of the advanced jets.
Gantz also discussed the sale of the planes with senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner, a key architect of the normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain.
Gantz and Kushner discussed “furthering additional accords as an instrument for ensuring regional stability and protecting Israel’s security, while maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge throughout the process,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
There was no comment on the meeting from the White House.
Congressional rules require any US arms sale in the Middle East to be vetted against the rubric of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. Gantz has previously expressed opposition to the sale of the F-35s to the UAE, though he has also said that the choice is up to the US.
While Israeli opposition could complicate a US arms sale, Jerusalem does not have any sort of veto over American arms deals.
Gantz thanked Kushner for his role in bringing about the US-brokered normalization deals with Abu Dhabi and Manama, and indicated more countries could also strike alliances with Israel.
“We will work in partnership to further regional stability in the Middle East through normalization with additional countries,” Gantz said at the end of the meeting.
The Israeli defense chief told National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien that the Israeli defense establishment supports and appreciates the US policy of cooperating with Israel and applying pressure on Iran in the international arena, the ministry said.
Gantz briefed O’Brien on “ongoing Iranian aggression” and told him that Israel will not halt its campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, though it is working to enlist other countries to join the effort.
Israel has carried out multiple strikes in Syria in recent years targeting what it says is Iranian military infrastructure it fears could be used to attack the Jewish state.
Gantz is slated to return to Israel early Thursday. He did not travel to the US last week for the signing of the accords with the UAE and Bahrain.