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US, Emirates said to seek an F-35 sale agreement by December

Reuters report says one idea to uphold Israel’s military edge is to give it tech to detect stealth planes; Gantz in Washington for talks on controversial arms deal

Fighter jets from the IAF's second F-35 squadron, the Lions of the South, fly over southern Israel, January 2020. (IDF spokesperson)
Fighter jets from the IAF's second F-35 squadron, the Lions of the South, fly over southern Israel, January 2020. (IDF spokesperson)

The United States is reportedly looking to ink a deal to sell F-35 stealth jets to the United Arab Emirates by December.

According to Reuters, Washington is also considering ways to assuage Israel’s concerns that its security could be jeopardized by the sale of the advanced jets.

The report comes as Defense Minister Benny Gantz is in Washington for talks on the emerging deal.

Citing unnamed “sources close to the negotiations” between Washington and Abu Dhabi, the report says the two governments hope to produce a “letter of agreement” on the sale by December 2, the UAE’s National Day. It will likely take several more years before the first plane is delivered to the Emirates.

The US has repeatedly committed to Israel over the years to help ensure its qualitative military edge, or QME, over its neighbors on the battlefield, and is reportedly now seeking ways to ensure the sale doesn’t undermine that commitment.

In this August 5, 2019, photo released by the US Air Force, an F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew prepare for a mission at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. (Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury/US Air Force via AP)

One idea was to provide Israeli air defenses with technology that will be able to detect the UAE F-35s, Reuters said.

The service reported that the US already reduces the performance of weapons platforms it sells to foreign governments to ensure they can’t compete head to head with American platforms. A similar reduction may be employed with the Emirati F-35s, the report speculated.

Since the Israel-UAE peace agreement was announced last month, Abu Dhabi has been open about its desire to acquire F-35 warplanes and other advanced US-made weaponry. Israel is the only US ally in the Middle East to possess the stealth fighter jet.

Senior Emirati officials have said that normalization with Israel should lift any remaining barriers to the sale.

“The whole idea of a state of belligerency or war with Israel is over, so I think it should actually be easier [to purchase the fighter jet],” senior UAE diplomat Anwar Gargash said in August. “We feel that with the signing of this treaty in the coming weeks or months… that any hurdle toward this [purchase] should no longer be there.”

From left to right: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani stand on the Blue Room Balcony during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially said he opposed the sale of the planes to any other nation in the region, even an Arab country at peace with Israel. But since then, he has softened his line, signaling he will trust the US to honor its commitment to ensure Israel’s military edge in the region.

Gantz’s office said he would meet with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top Pentagon officials. It said the trip would include “meetings to discuss maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge, international policy vis-a-vis Iran and the strategy for stopping its expansion and entrenchment in the Middle East, as well as discussion on defense cooperation and procurement.”

Gantz, a former chief of staff of the military, has had tense relations with Netanyahu since the two rivals formed their coalition government in May. Gantz was not informed about the deal with the UAE until after it was reached.

Under US law, Congress is tasked with vetting sales of arms to Middle Eastern countries and weighing them against America’s QME commitments, a determination usually made following consultations between the Pentagon and Israeli defense officials. While Israel cannot veto a sale, it can raise concerns that could make it more difficult to seal a deal.

US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week she intended to ensure Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the Middle East under any US arms sale to the UAE.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with an F-35 squadron on the Israeli Air Force’s Nevatim base in southern Israel on July 28, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Gantz initially expressed concern about the UAE acquiring the fighter jets. Last week, however, like Netanyahu he appeared to soften his tone and said Israel’s objection would not hold much weight anyway.

“It is an American prerogative — not an Israeli prerogative — to decide to whom to sell,” Gantz said.

US President Donald Trump said in early September that he has “absolutely no problem” with selling advanced F-35 fighters to the UAE.

Gantz will also discuss joint security cooperation for reducing Iranian expansion in the region. He will remain in the United States for 24 hours, returning to Israel shortly before dawn on Thursday, according to a Defense Ministry statement.

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