White House informs Congress of plans to sell as many as 50 F-35s to UAE

Informal notice of $10.4 billion sale gives lawmakers opportunity to raise objections before it moves forward, comes days after Netanyahu gave blessing to transfer

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: Fighter jets from the IAF's second F-35 squadron, the Lions of the South, fly over southern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Fighter jets from the IAF's second F-35 squadron, the Lions of the South, fly over southern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)

NEW YORK — The Trump administration has updated Congress of its intent to sell F-35 advanced fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, a ranking House Democrat announced on Thursday.

The informal notification to the House Foreign Affairs Committee revealed that the White House plans to sell as many as 50 units of the Lockheed Martin-made jets for roughly $10.4 billion, a senior congressional staffer told The Times of Israel. Israel has ordered the same number of F-35s from the US, though not all of them have been transferred yet.

The committee’s chairman, Elliot Engel (D-NY), will introduce legislation on Friday to prevent the sale from moving forward without strong assurances that it won’t harm Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region and that American adversaries will not be able to gain access to the military technology, the staffer said. Similar legislation has already been introduced in the Senate as well.

The informal notification given on Thursday was a courtesy that is not technically required of the White House. However, it has been effective policy for decades to consult with the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees before an official notification of a weapons sale is submitted to Congress. This gives lawmakers an opportunity to raise objections and even try and block a particular transfer.

Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, listens during a committee hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 30, 2019. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Thursday’s update is still an early step in the process, and a formal notification from the State Department to Congress is still required. Reuters reported that the White House is hoping to submit the formal notification in December. At that point, lawmakers will have 30 days to produce a resolution to block the sale, though two-thirds of Congress would be needed to override a presidential veto.

Last June, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering scrapping the informal notification process against the backdrop of lawmakers’ opposition to a billion-dollar arms deal to Saudi Arabia in 2019. Then, the White House invoked an emergency provision to bypass Congress altogether.

But on Wednesday, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper told reporters that the administration was still “committed” to consulting with Congress regarding the sale.

Engel issued a statement confirming the development and warning that the sale could “significantly change the military balance in the Gulf and affect Israel’s military edge.”

Reports of the US intention to sell what Engel on Thursday called “a game-changing stealth platform” to Abu Dhabi began to flow days after the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel following negotiations brokered by the White House. US and Israeli officials have asserted the F-35 sale was not directly tied to normalization, but Trump officials have acknowledged that the peace deal signed last month placed the UAE in a better position to purchase the advanced aircraft, which only Israel has in the Middle East.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inspecting an Adir F-35 stealth fighter at the Nevatim Air Force Base on July 9, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

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

Asked to comment on the Congressional notification, Netanyahu told reporters Thursday that it followed extensive talks between the US and Israel during which Jerusalem received “more than just security” in the assurances from the US that its military superiority in the region would be maintained.

“We are facing a joint threat,” he said, apparently suggesting that the US could sell such weapons to the UAE with Israel’s blessing, given their common enemy of Iran.

Last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz flew to the US, where he met with his American counterpart, Mark Esper, and signed an agreement aimed at “maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East for years to come.”

Though that agreement appeared to be a largely symbolic gesture as the responsibility for maintaining Israel’s QME is already enshrined in US law, the defense minister said in a statement that it does had real-world implications. The deal is not believed to have included the sale of weapons, but a security official told The Times of Israel that a number of new platforms are being considered for transfer to Jerusalem.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 24, 2011, prior to addressing a joint meeting of Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Engel is among a growing number of Democrats and even some Republicans who have voiced concern over the sale. It is unclear whether these critics have the votes to block it, particularly given the green light from Netanyahu.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee chair said in his statement that the weapons transfer would “require very careful consideration and Congress must analyze all of the ramifications. Rushing these sales is not in anyone’s interest.”

Engel pointed out that Israel currently has “exclusive access in the region to the F-35, which has guaranteed its military edge over the last several years. As Congress reviews this sale, it must be clear that changes to the status quo will not put Israel’s military advantage at risk.”

Engel said he’d demand assurances that the F-35 technology would be protected from Russia and China, which are also active in the region. He also expressed concern that the transfer of F-35s to the UAE will lead other countries considering normalizing with Israel to make the same demand as Abu Dhabi.

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