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Republicans on key panel ‘uneasy’ about F-35 sale to UAE — congressional aides

After White House officials brief Senate Foreign Relations Committee on planned $23 billion arms deal, lawmakers gear up for long-shot vote to block it

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

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)
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)

NEW YORK — Republican members of a key Senate panel are signaling apprehension with the Trump administration’s planned $23 billion arms deal to the United Arab Emirates, according to sources on Capitol Hill.

While the administration-proposed weapons transfer has received the most vocal opposition from Democrats, questioning from Republicans during a Monday closed-door briefing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee indicated that concern over the arms deal exists in Trump’s party as well, several congressional staffers told The Times of Israel.

In separate background conversations with The Times of Israel after the classified session, two aides from opposite sides of the aisle said Republicans had expressed “unease” over the sale due to concerns over whether advanced weaponry such as F-35 fighter jets and Reaper drones could be entrusted to the UAE.

Assistant Secretary of State R. Clarke Cooper, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and senior Pentagon official Michael Cutrone sought to assuage members’ concerns regarding the massive weapons sales during the Senate briefing Monday, the staffers said.

But Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy indicated what he heard did not convince him to back the deal.

“Just a mind-blowing number of unsettled issues and questions the administration couldn’t answer. Hard to overstate the danger of rushing this though,” he tweeted shortly after the hearing.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Last month, the Trump administration formally notified Congress of its plan to sell 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets, 18 advanced armed Reaper drone systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions to the UAE.

The announcement came less than two months after the UAE signed a normalization agreement with Israel, which was brokered by the White House. On the record, the three countries involved have insisted that the arms deal was not part of negotiations that brought about the so-called Abraham Accords.

But Trump officials have acknowledged that the agreement put Abu Dhabi in a better position to receive such advanced weaponry, and a source with direct knowledge of the talks told The Times of Israel that both the US and Israel knew that the arms deal was “very much part of the deal.”

Israel has announced that it would not oppose the sale, an about-face from its previous opposition to the deal on the grounds that it would harm the Jewish state’s military edge in the region.

The Trump administration is now seeking to push the deal through before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.

Congress is not required to approve the sale, but it can seek to block it, which is what Murphy, fellow Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Rand Paul are seeking to do.

The three have submitted a series of resolutions aimed at thwarting the arms deal, which must come to a vote by December 11 or face expiration.

A Republican congressional aide told The Times of Israel that it was likely the resolutions would be voted on, but even if it passes, the two-thirds majority in both houses that opponents would need to override a presidential veto was not realistic.

Because the transfer of such weapons takes years to come about, an incoming Biden administration could also block the deal, but there’s little precedent for a president to scrap such agreements made by a predecessor.

At the same time, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state Tony Blinken told The Times of Israel days before the election that the Democratic nominee would have to “take a hard look” at the F-35 sale due to concerns that it might threaten Israel’s legally-protected Qualitative Military Edge, or QME.

Others have raised concerns over the arms deal due to what critics say is the UAE’s shoddy human rights record and its involvement in a bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been described as a humanitarian disaster.

Opposition to the arms deal has not fallen along party lines, with some Republicans such as Paul joining forces with Democratic colleagues in voicing apprehension.

“While they won’t be enough to give the Democrats a majority, there are several Republicans who have not decided yet how they’re going to vote on the resolutions of disapproval,” said one congressional aide.

However, concerns in the GOP regarding damage to Israel’s QME appear to have been mitigated after Israel withdrew its opposition.

Democratic US Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Speaking to reporters after a caucus meeting on Tuesday, Republican Senator Roy Blunt said, “Israel is supportive. I think it may be the only thing that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz have agreed on since they formed their coalition government, that this sale should go forward.”

He went on to suggest that failing to approve the deal would risk damaging the Abraham Accords. “Clearly, the Abraham Accords… will be impacted by whether we continue to have the kind of cooperation on defense issues that we’ve had with the UAE,” Blunt said.

But in a Twitter thread later Tuesday, Murphy presented his other objections to the arms deal that extends beyond QME concerns. He pointed to the UAE’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the civil war in Yemen where they “have killed thousands of civilians with US-made weapons.”

“In Libya, the UAE is in violation of the international arms embargo. And there’s evidence the UAE has illegally transferred US military equipment to extremist militias in Yemen,” Murphy continued. “It begs the question why the US would reward this behavior with a record-setting arms sale agreement. At the very least, we should receive clear, unbreakable assurances that the UAE’s conduct in Libya and Yemen will change. That hasn’t happened.”

The Democratic senator clarified that he viewed the Abraham Accords as a positive development for the region and that he was not entirely opposed to selling weapons to the UAE, but that what was being proposed was too broad.

He also expressed concerns that the deal could spark an arms race in the Middle East.

“In the classified briefing, Trump officials could not detail how our most sensitive technology — on the Reapers and our F-35 jets — will not find its way to Russia/China,” he added.

For their part, Republican backers of the deal have pointed to a deepening alliance with the UAE that deserves to be nurtured given Abu Dhabi’s interest in deterring Iran.

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