UAE official reportedly rebuffs Netanyahu denial he okayed F-35 sale

Pushing back at PM’s claim that deal did not include agreement to remove Israeli objections, newspaper report maintains he was aware of multi-billion-dollar arms agreement

Illustrative: Fighter jets from the IAF's second F-35 squadron, the Lions of the South, fly over southern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Fighter jets from the IAF's second F-35 squadron, the Lions of the South, fly over southern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)

A United Arab Emirates official on Tuesday night reportedly pushed back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s denial that last week’s normalization agreement included a provision green-lighting a US sale of advanced weaponry to the Gulf nation, claiming the Israeli leader was aware of the multi-billion-dollar arms deal and signed off on it.

The Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported on Tuesday morning, citing American and Emirati sources, that last week’s US-brokered agreement included language to supply the Arab Gulf nation with advanced weapons systems, including American F-35s.

Furthermore, it reported that Netanyahu had made the deal behind the back of the Israeli defense establishment and kept Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, both former IDF chiefs, in the dark about it.

Netanyahu tweeted on Tuesday morning that the story by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily was “utter fake news.” In a statement, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister has opposed the sale of F-35s and other advanced weapons to any country in the Middle East, including Arab countries that have peace agreements with Israel.

But an Emirati official told Yedioth on Tuesday night that Netanyahu gave his approval to the arms deal between the US and UAE as part of the agreement to form Israeli-UAE diplomatic ties, a development which could see Israel’s military edge in the region compromised.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a phone call with UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed on August 13, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/PMO)

The US had also reportedly denied the report, with a White House statement carried by Hebrew-language media on Tuesday evening saying there was no secret arms deal included in the UAE-Israel agreement.

However, former White House Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt appeared to hint at the possibility of there having been a backroom deal for Israel to remove its objections. “Whatever happened behind closed doors I’m sure makes sense, even if it might look more flexible than in the past,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.

Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the US Congress promised to preserve Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East by considering Jerusalem’s position before selling advanced weapons to the Jewish state’s neighbors.

That promise has prevented US President Donald Trump, who has cultivated warmer ties with Gulf nations, from signing major deals with the UAE. But that is no longer the case, Yedioth reported Tuesday morning, citing unnamed American and Emirati officials.

The Yedioth report said that what had persuaded the UAE to sign the normalization pact was an agreement on a deal worth tens of billions of dollars, under which Abu Dhabi will get advanced F-35 jets, unmanned aircraft and other weapons.

The report cited unnamed sources estimating that the UAE crown prince and de-facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, had conditioned the entire deal on the inclusion of the weapons deal clause.

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and de facto ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, during a meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House, on May 15, 2017. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

The UAE has long been reported to be interested in acquiring US-made F-35 stealth fighter jets and attack drones like those the Israelis have.

Netanyahu admitted on Thursday that he kept his senior coalition partners in the Blue and White party — including Foreign Minister Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Gantz — out of the loop regarding the brewing normalization deal with the UAE, and said he did so at the request of the US.

Gantz seemed to question Netanyahu’s denial in a televised statement from the Defense Ministry on Tuesday, saying that he was only informed of last week’s blockbuster accord after the fact.

Gantz, who also serves as the alternate prime minister and is Netanyahu’s chief coalition partner, is supposed to replace Netanyahu as premier next year. A former head of the Israeli military, Gantz vowed to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge at any price.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)

“The future and [the] resiliency of Israel depend on two efforts: Striving for peace and insisting, without any compromise, upon maintaining our military superiority in every place in the Middle East,” he said.

Ashkenazi said in a press briefing that “we are not familiar with any defense-related promises as part of the deal with the UAE, and if there are [any,] they weren’t made with the consultation or knowledge of myself or the Foreign Ministry.

“The IDF’s military edge is one of the most important aspects of our security,” he added.

Israel and the UAE announced the US-brokered accord on Thursday, saying that they were establishing full diplomatic relations in exchange for freezing plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Israel had previously planned to unilaterally move ahead with the annexation of the Jordan Valley and the settlements, on the basis of the US peace plan.

The agreement makes the UAE the third Arab country, after Egypt and Jordan, to have full, active diplomatic ties with Israel. Thursday’s joint statement said deals between Israel and the UAE were expected in the coming weeks regarding matters such as as tourism, security and trade.

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