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After initial dismay, Israel is not opposing the sale

Senate votes down resolutions aimed at blocking $23b Trump arms deal to UAE

Splitting mostly on party lines, opponents fail to convince majority that Trump is rushing sale of F-35s and Reaper drones to nation involved in devastating Yemen bombing campaign

Illustrative: US Air Force F-35A Lightning II’s at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, on November 16, 2019. (Joshua Williams/US Department of Defense)
Illustrative: US Air Force F-35A Lightning II’s at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, on November 16, 2019. (Joshua Williams/US Department of Defense)

NEW YORK — The US Senate voted to reject a pair of resolutions on Wednesday aimed at blocking the Trump administration’s planned $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates in the wake of the Gulf monarchy’s peace deal with Israel.

Splitting mostly on party lines, opponents failed to convince a majority of 50 senators in two procedural votes that US President Donald Trump was acting hastily before President-elect Joe Biden takes over next month to bolster the UAE, which has been heavily criticized for its role in the Saudi Arabia-lead offensive in Yemen.

The first resolution aimed at blocking the sale of 18 advanced armed Reaper drone systems fell 50-46 and the measure aimed at halting the sale of 50 stealth F-35 fighter fell jets was rejected 49-47.

Libertarian Republican Rand Paul, who co-sponsored the resolutions along with Democrats Chris Murphy and Bob Menendez, was the only member of his party to vote in favor of them. Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema broke with her party on both resolutions, while fellow Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly did so on the drone sale only.

In this image made from video, US Senator Rand Paul speaks on the Senate floor at the US Capitol in Washington, March 18, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)

Earlier Wednesday, the White House threatened to veto the resolutions if they passed, meaning both the Senate and House of Representatives would have needed two-thirds majorities in favor of the resolutions to override him.

The White House in a statement said that the weapons would enable the UAE to “deter increasing Iranian aggressive behavior and threats issued in the wake of that peace deal.”

Paul acknowledged to reporters on Tuesday that the resolutions were unlikely to pass and even less likely to pass with enough votes to override a Trump veto.

Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agreed that Iran posed risks but said: “We have yet to understand exactly what military threat the F-35s or armed drones will be addressing vis-a-vis Iran.”

He noted that Qatar — a fellow US ally that is under a blockade by the UAE and Saudi Arabia — has already been pushing for its own F-35s.

“Do we really think that we can sell this just to the UAE and not have those other countries come knocking on our door and starting a very sophisticated arms race in the tinderbox of the world?” Menendez asked on the Senate floor.

Menendez also voiced concern both over the discovery of Emirati arms shipments to war-ravaged Libya, which is under a UN arms embargo, and on signs the United Arab Emirates has sought military ties with China.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., questions State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, Jr., as he testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 5, 2016. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Republican Senator Roy Blunt said that selling weapons to the UAE supported US jobs and provided “reinforcement of our friends who see common enemies and are working directly to move their country and their region in a much better direction.”

One of the costliest warplanes in the world, the F-35, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, carries high-end sensors and data-collection tools and can be used for airstrikes, intelligence gathering and air-to-air combat.

Israel and the UAE signed a US-brokered normalization deal in September. Last month, the Trump administration formally notified Congress of its planned weapons sale to Abu Dhabi.

A US MQ-9 Reaper drone in an exercise over Texas, Nov. 3, 2019. (Air National Guard/Technical Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez)

On the record, the three countries 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 announced in October 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. That decision came after meetings held between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his US counterpart at the time, Mark Esper, at the conclusion of which the sides signed an agreement further codifying Washington’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s federally-protected military edge in the region.

Gantz is also believed to have secured an American commitment to a substantial military package to compensate for the weapons that the Pentagon is preparing to sell to one of Israel’s neighbors.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 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. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Last week, the UAE’s Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba issued a rebuttal of congressional concerns over the deal, warning that if Washington refuses to supply his country with the weapons it needs to secure the region, it will be forced to turn elsewhere.

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 military edge.

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