(September 22, 2020 / JNS) Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz went to Washington this week to officially concede defeat on an issue regarding his country’s security. While many in the Jewish state have been hoping that the Trump administration can be talked out of selling F-35 stealth fighter jets and advanced armed drones to the United Arab Emirates, it now appears that the sale is a done deal. As JNS reports, Gantz’s trip appears to be an attempt to get the administration to soften the blow by giving Israel more of what it wants in terms of military hardware so as to preserve the Jewish state’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) over any possible combination of foreign foes.
Critics of President Donald Trump assert that the sale of the advanced fighter jet is a sign that all the fuss over the normalization and peace agreements signed by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel is overblown. They say this proves that the agreements are merely business deals to increase arms sales and have nothing to do with peace.
But the attempt to depict the F-35 sale as a failure of Israeli diplomacy or a betrayal of the Jewish state is false. While the Israeli security establishment would prefer that the UAE not get the jets, they are a small price to pay for normalization deals that do far more to advance the Jewish state’s security than any piece of military hardware.
Opponents of the sale should also consider whether the outcome of one of the most rancorous debates in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations—the 1981 controversy in which the government of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and AIPAC pulled out all the stops to try to stop the Reagan administration’s plans to sell AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia—should put a damper on their alarmism.
Opponents of the sale fear that a regime change event or a shift in regional alliances could put a decisive weapon in the hands of Israel’s armed foes. And even if the UAE doesn’t drift away from its current stance as a friendly nation, its possession of the same military technology as Israel threatens the country’s QME over any potential enemy or combination of foes—the maintenance of which is a principle that has been sacred to every Israeli government for the last generation.
Israel was the first foreign nation to purchase the F-35. As of July 2019, the Israel Air Force deployed 16 of the advanced jets that have the ability to slip through radar screens. The first operational use of the planes was reportedly in 2018 when the IAF attacked Iranian targets in Syria. Allowing any other armed force in the region to have them theoretically undermines Israel’s position as a regional superpower that cannot be challenged by any combination of local foes.
While the threat to the QME is a potent argument, those worries don’t justify potentially undermining normalization with the Arab world.
For the last decade, the Gulf States have been steadily moving towards Israel. The reason is twofold. On the one hand, they have grown tired of the Palestinians exercising a veto over the Arab world’s ability to normalize relations and trade with the Jewish state. There is also Iran, which they fear far more than they ever did Israel. The Emiratis not unreasonably believe that it ought to be obvious that anything that strengthens their military deterrent against Iran is also good for Israel.
Even if the sale were to go through soon, it might be as much as eight years before the UAE could put them into service. Israel would then have a decade’s head start in employing them and perhaps already be ready to move on to the next generation of fighter that might put the F-35 in the shade.
In response, the Israeli military establishment asks where they would be if the UAE’s committee of princely rulers were overthrown by Islamists or Iranian proxies. That’s the standard argument the pro-Israel community has employed against any and all arms sales to the Arab world, and it has validity.
The pro-Israel community, however, isn’t revving the machinery for a fight against the sale. That makes sense because such a battle would be futile and seem ungrateful after all that the Trump administration did to help secure the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, as well as the realistic hope that other Arab and Muslim nations will follow in their footsteps.
Pro-Israel advocates would do well to remember the near-apocalyptic fears that the sale of AWACS planes generated among American Jews four decades ago. The arguments about the Saudis using the planes to aid future invasions of Israel not only failed to persuade Congress to rebuke the Reagan administration; they also proved unfounded.
At the time, the 1973 Yom Kippur War—when the Saudis sent 3,000 troops to fight on the Syrian front—and the Arab oil embargo that followed were still recent events. The case that Saudi interest in advanced military equipment was about efforts to destroy Israel made sense. Critics of the sale didn’t comprehend that the Saudis’ real worry at the time was how to defend themselves in a region in which the newly installed Islamist regime in Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi dictatorship stood as potential threats.
The Saudis never used the AWACS planes against Israel. Though it would be many years before their close under-the-table relations with the Jewish state would become a reality, Riyadh remained focused on potential foes on the other side of the Gulf.
As far as the Trump administration is concerned, criticism of a UAE government that has gone out of its way to demonstrate friendship for the Jewish state and disdain for the Palestinians makes no sense. Ensuring security for the UAE would help Israel and weaken Iran for the foreseeable future.
The extra hardware the United States will sell Israel in order to maintain the QME will more than make up for any possible danger. Saying no to the Emiratis about the jets won’t help increase the number of nations that are recognizing Israel or make it more secure.
The F-35 sale might be shot down by a Biden administration next year. Whether or not that happens, those who worry about the ultimate disposition of the jet should remember that Begin and AIPAC turned out to be wrong about AWACS. Israel’s military edge is not in any real danger, and far from a betrayal by Trump, his push for Arab states to recognize Israel is the ultimate act of friendship. Normalization with a growing number of Arab nations and acquiring new allies does more to strengthen Israel than any plane.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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