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US official: ‘Incredibly positive conversations’ held over selling F-35s to UAE

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus tells Emirati media that talks are underway to provide the Gulf state with advanced aircraft amid normalization deal with Israel

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi on August 26, 2020 (Twitter)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi on August 26, 2020 (Twitter)

US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday that “incredible positive conversations” were already underway over providing the United Arab Emirates with elite F-35 fighter jets and other military hardware after the Gulf state’s deal to normalize relations with Israel.

“We know that there are more agreements to formalize between the UAE and Israel, but you have taken the first step and I have no doubt that the other steps will come into place, and that’s one of the reasons why Secretary [Mike] Pompeo is here,” Ortagus told Emirates News Agency, WAM, in an interview in Abu Dhabi, referring to Pompeo’s Wednesday visit to the UAE.

“With respect to the F-35 or any military hardware or infrastructure, I keep reminding people that it is important to know that the UAE and US’s military and security relationship is robust and has been there for decades. Since the Gulf War, the United States had sold military aircraft and hardware, F-16s, and others to the UAE,” Ortagus said.

“This is not a new relationship; this is a sophisticated relationship that we have had for decades,” she said. “There’s various discussions about the hardware elements, and aircraft, and other things that are on the table.”

Last week, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported that the US was planning to sell the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter jet to the UAE as part of a recently announced normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly denied the report as fake news, US President Donald Trump and other senior American officials later confirmed that Washington was indeed considering selling the aircraft to the UAE and that the normalization deal was a significant factor in that decision.

Further indicating that the F-35 sale was — at least to the Emiratis — tied to the normalization agreement, UAE officials on Monday night told the Walla news site that a planned photo op including Israeli, Emirati and American officials was called off in light of Netanyahu’s public comments against the sale.

Though Israeli officials have indicated that Jerusalem considers the UAE acquiring the F-35 — one of the most advanced operational aircraft in the world — to be a step too far, the Mossad intelligence agency has reportedly been pushing for Israel to sell its own state-of-the-art weapons to Abu Dhabi for years, despite opposition from the Defense Ministry, which fears that the military technology may wind up in the hands of Iran or other enemy nations.

An F-35 fighter plane flies over the White House on June 12, 2019, in Washington DC. (Eric Baradat/AFP)

According to the Yedioth report, in an effort to improve relations with the UAE following an embarrassing bungled assassination attempt in Dubai in 2010, the Mossad — with approval from Netanyahu — has been encouraging arms sales to the Gulf country, including classified and highly precise munitions, as well as powerful technological tools like the phone-cracking Pegasus software developed by the cyber intelligence firm NSO Group.

The Defense Ministry, which is legally required to approve all arms sales to foreign countries, has raised concerns over these sales to the UAE, as Iran maintains a significant intelligence presence in the Gulf, but has ultimately permitted them in light of the Mossad’s requests, according to the report.

The United States is legally bound to maintain Israel’s military advantage in the Middle East — known formally as its Qualitative Military Edge, or QME — though this has not always prevented Washington from approving advanced arms sales to countries in the region. Israel does not have a veto on American arms sales, but rather the US makes its decision based on Pentagon assessments of Israeli military power and how such deals could affect it.

As such, the US over the years has agreed to sell the F-35 to Turkey despite Israeli opposition, though this was later rendered moot after Ankara purchased the S-400 missile defense system from Russia despite staunch American objection, prompting Washington to cancel the F-35 contract.

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