Anwar Gargash, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, doesn’t understand why Israel would object to the U.S. selling his country the F-35 fighter jet. The UAE is one of the few Arab states that has never been at war with Israel, after all, and now it’s working to normalize relations with the Jewish state. What’s an advanced weapons system between new friends?
When asked this week at a conference sponsored by the Atlantic Council about Israeli objections to the F-35 sale, Gargash said it might have to do with domestic Israeli politics. He concurred with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks that the arms sale was not part of the normalization agreement. Nonetheless, he also said he expected that signing the agreement with Israel would remove any hurdles with the U.S. government on the sale of the F-35s.
Yet that is far from clear. Since 1973, the U.S. has largely followed a policy designed to give Israel a “qualitative military edge,” or QME, over the other Arab states in the region when it comes to arms sales. In practice, this means that the U.S. will not sell weapons systems to Arab states that give them capabilities comparable to Israel’s. Israel has a role in this process and is influential in Congress, which also must approve such arms sales.
But Israel does not always get its way. In 1981, for example, the U.S. sold surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia over the objections of Israel, and Congress narrowly approved the sale.
Israel said this week that it disapproved the sale of the F-35s to the UAE. The U.S., however, has signaled that it’s open to it. David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told the Jerusalem Post this week that future military sales to the UAE would go through the QME process. He also allowed for the possibility that one day, the U.S. might sell the F-35 to the UAE.
There are two good arguments for the Israeli position. First, today’s friends can be tomorrow’s adversaries. The best recent example of this is what has happened in Turkey. As a NATO ally, Turkey was for decades armed with some of America’s most sophisticated weapons systems. Israel has also enjoyed a close relationship with Ankara for much of its history.
But Turkey has more recently gone rogue, purchasing sophisticated air defense systems from Russia and signing agreements with Venezuela. Last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to suspend diplomatic relations with the UAE after it announced the normalization deal with Israel. The UAE’s leadership today is moderate and reasonable, but there is no guarantee this will always be the case.
The second argument is that it sets a bad precedent to sell the UAE the fighter jet platform that Israel has also purchased. Other, more volatile Arab allies of the U.S. will want it too — and possibly demand it as a price for normalization with Israel. To this day, the QME process still applies to Egypt and Jordan, which have peace treaties with Israel.
Not everyone agrees. “The UAE is a path breaker,” said David Wurmser, a former adviser to the U.S. National Security Council under President Donald Trump. “The path breaker has to get a reward.” And while Wurmser said he did not believe it would be wise to sell the F-35s to Saudi Arabia, he had more confidence that the UAE would be stable in the coming years, and he saw no reason why selling F-35s to UAE would mean that the Saudis should get them too.
Add to this another pending concern: The U.S. is currently planning to “snap back” sanctions on Iran to keep in place a conventional arms embargo that expires in October. But this maneuver is risky. There is a very good chance that Russia and China will simply ignore any arms embargo imposed by the U.S., which is no longer a part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Strengthening the UAE with state-of-the-art fighter jets is one way to hedge against the very real possibility of Chinese and Russian arms sales to Iran.
Friedman hinted at this in his interview. “Ultimately, under the right circumstances, both the U.S. and Israel would benefit greatly from having a strong ally situated across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran,” he told the Jerusalem Post.
Which highlights an irony about shifting alliances in the Middle East. By turning the UAE from foe to friend, Israeli is enhancing its national security. It may well be, however, that the price of that friendship will be the erosion of the military advantage its most important friend has provided Israel for nearly 50 years. – Bloomberg