UAE diplomat: Talks with US on F-35s began after normalization deal was signed

Yousef al-Otaiba tells Israeli TV weapons sale to Abu Dhabi came up after Abraham Accords, not during negotiations; says Biden well-placed for talks with Iran

An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet performs during an air show over Tel Aviv on May 9, 2019, as Israel marks its 71st Independence Day. (Jack Guez/AFP)
An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet performs during an air show over Tel Aviv on May 9, 2019, as Israel marks its 71st Independence Day. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Emirati ambassador to the United States said that talks with the US on sales of advanced jets to the UAE began only after Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem signed a normalization agreement in Washington in September.

The Trump administration formally notified Congress on Tuesday that it intends to sell 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets to the UAE as part of a broader arms deal worth over $23 billion, aimed at deterring potential threats from Iran, despite concern in Israel.

“That conversation began after the Abraham Accords,” Yousef al-Otaiba told Channel 12 in an interview that aired Tuesday but was conducted before the US announced the approval of the sale.

“And by the way, we’ve been trying to acquire the F-35 for six years. So this started a long time ago, it never made progress; we felt the Abraham Accords unlocked or created the opening for this to occur,” he said.

He said he didn’t know whether the UAE would have sought normalization with Israel without knowing if the Jewish state would tacitly approve the US arms sale.

“I felt we had confidence in the US administration helping us get there. What the US administration does with the Israelis, that’s a question for them, but I felt that we had a good sense of most of this being able to get through, not just the administration but also Congress, as long as it addresses Israel’s [qualitative military edge] issues,” Otaiba said.

UAE diplomat Yousef al-Otaiba in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 news broadcast on November 10, 2020. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

He added that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz agreed to the sale after discussions with US officials on preserving Israel’s military advantage in the Middle East.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday he had authorized the sale in keeping with the administration’s Middle East peace efforts, and directly tied the arms sale to the UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel.

“This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran,” Pompeo said in a statement.

The notification to lawmakers followed September’s signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE, under which the Arab states agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

Israeli officials had previously expressed some concern about an F-35 sale because it could affect the balance of military power in the region. But Pompeo said it would be “fully consistent” with the longstanding policy of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military advantage.

The sale, worth up to $23.37 billion, includes 50 F-35s, 18 advanced armed Reaper drone systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.

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

On Iran, Otaiba said he believes in reaching a deal, “but let’s address all the problems, not just one of them. Let’s not just take the nuclear issue and forget about all the other problems we have to deal with today.”

“I think that they’re in a better position for negotiation,” he said of the Biden administration. “So now, you have a new administration, but you also have a lot of leverage on Iran, whether it’s sanctions, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s low oil prices, whether it’s the region and whatever it’s going through in general. Why are we not using this leverage to get a better deal?”

Otaiba wouldn’t comment on which other Mideast countries he feels could soon ink normalization agreements with Israel.

“I don’t know which countries are ready or when they’ll be ready. But I can tell you that what we did kind of broke the ice, broke the taboo, that this is no longer impossible. It can be done.”

Pointing to the Bahraini and Sudanese normalization agreements in the aftermath of the UAE deal, he said it proved “this is not an aberration… This is a trend.”

L-R: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House on September 15, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

After agreeing to normalize relations with Israel in August, Emirati officials had said purchasing the F-35s was among their main goals. At the time, Netanyahu insisted that he had not agreed to the sale as part of the treaty with the UAE, but he and Gantz later dropped public objections to it.

Some in the US have also raised concerns over arms sales to the UAE, due to its involvement in the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.

Israel’s Channel 13 on Tuesday night said Saudi Arabia and Qatar were also interested in similar arms deals with the US, and speculated that such deals might move ahead as part of the warming of ties between those two countries and Israel. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly predicted that Saudi Arabia and up to nine other countries are readying to normalize relations with Israel.

Trump officials have acknowledged that the deal with Israel placed the UAE in a better position to purchase the advanced aircraft, which only Israel currently has in the Middle East.

Pompeo in his Tuesday statement compared the sale to assistance the US gave Egypt and Jordan after they agreed to make peace with Israel, seemingly undermining Netanyahu, who has insisted vociferously that the arms sale was not linked to the normalization agreement.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removes his facemask as he arrives for a media briefing on November 10, 2020, at the State Department in Washington, DC. (Jacquelyn Martin / POOL / AFP)

Reports of the US intention to sell F-35s to Abu Dhabi began to surface in August, days after the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel following negotiations brokered by the White House. It came as a shock in Israel, particularly to the country’s security establishment, which Netanyahu had excluded from the negotiations with Abu Dhabi.

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

Netanyahu has repeatedly denied that he gave approval for the sale of the F-35, as well as advanced unmanned aerial vehicles and other weapons, as part of the UAE deal, or that there were secret negotiations to that effect. This has been publicly questioned by Gantz and outright disputed by opposition party members.

Netanyahu initially voiced opposition to the sale, but last month reversed his position, issuing a statement saying Israel would not oppose US plans to provide “certain weapon systems” to the UAE.

Days later the White House informally notified Congress of the proposed sale.

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